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Brotherhood in “Sonny’s Blues” Essay

Since I was a small child, around two years old, I have had the privilege and sometimes the complete terror of being an older brother. This has been a rewarding experience for me, and has given me many learning opportunities and teaching opportunities in my fairly short life. Because of my experience as an older brother I was more fully able to understand and appreciate the struggles and triumphs that the two brothers in “Sonny’s Blues” endured. While I have never personally had to deal with the extreme experiences and responsibilities that the narrator dealt with, I can still relate simply as an older brother myself. Throughout the short story I found myself questioning how I would deal with Sonny if he were my brother.

I finally came to the conclusion that if I had dealt with Sonny, I would have probably handled him in nearly the same way as the narrator did. While I questioned his judgment at times, I feel that the older brother played his role well or at least to the best of his ability. Regardless of how the narrator dealt with his brother the final outcome is the most important aspect of the story, and it shows that brotherhood is capable of overcoming hardship and misunderstanding because it is so important in regard to human survival and success. The fact that brotherhood prevails over all things is an important theme, and one that rings so very true.

The first struggle that the reader is introduced to in “Sonny’s Blues” is the distinct age difference between Sonny and his older brother. “The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm. I wondered if these years would ever operate between us as a bridge.” (Baldwin, 44 – hereafter referred to as page number only) The so-called “chasm” is the hurdle that must be cleared in the story, and that “clearing of the hurdle” is the key to forming a solid, emotional relationship between the brothers.

The “bridge” is finally formed when the narrator attends Sonny’s performance at the jazz club. The fact that we get to see the interaction between the two brothers is important, but even more important is that the reader sees the narrator’s realization of his brother’s talent in the first person. This allows us to feel how deeply it touches the narrator, and gives us a perspective of his overflowing of emotion.

“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” (61)

This particular passage was very striking to me, because it showed that the narrator finally realized that Sonny had a story too. He realizes that Sonny has suffered, but he has also triumphed many times, and in many ways. The narrator had a blanketing view of Sonny, in which Sonny could never be successful at anything. While Sonny is playing he tells his brother that they are more alike than they know, and that they both have the same story, just with different details. The brothers have finally found a bond, a common thread, and that is one of the most important things that brothers can have.

James Baldwin was a writer of his past. He used his personal experiences to more effectively write his detailed and emotional stories and essays. One important aspect to his writing in general, but more specifically in his early stories is poverty stricken Harlem, New York. Baldwin uses personal experiences and opinions to make his characters a part of the Harlem he lived through. The idea that Harlem is in a vicious cycle of destroying generation after generation, and the constant desire of youth to find a way out are two very important themes in “Sonny’s Blues.” Harlem is a place that repeats itself over and over, like a scratched record. Yet no one is willing to help the other out. For each generation the tragedy of Harlem is new, for the older people are reluctant to inform the young ones of the condition of the black race (Goldman, 1).

The narrator repeatedly observes that nothing has changed across generations, not the buildings or the lives of those who grow up in them” (McBride, 201). The narrator also compares Sonny’s heroin addiction to prison and then compares them both to Harlem, truly showing the dire situation that he and his brother find themselves in. The restriction and oppression of Harlem is an important element in explaining the stranglehold that is on their lives from the time they are young. It is a theme that I wish Baldwin would have explored more because the environment a child is placed in is very important to the kind of person they become in life.

In some ways I was disappointed with the way in which the narrator dealt with Sonny and his heroin addiction. I found it questionable that he waited until after his daughter’s death to write to Sonny. But at the same time, this provides a great example of his inherent need for his brother in his time of hurt. The narrator was in need of Sonny to help him through his tough time, and maybe at the same time realized his own failures to Sonny when he was struggling himself. The most important thing that comes from the letter to Sonny was that contact was finally made, which is the first and most important step to rekindling the brotherhood.

While music becomes the integral part of bringing the brothers back together, it had a shaky start as a part of their relationship. Sonny had started playing the piano while living at his brother’s in-laws. He became quite talented but heroin addiction got in his way, and eventually tripped him up. One important conversation the brothers had was after their mother’s funeral, Sonny’s brother notes: “I simply couldn’t see why on earth he’d want to spend his tine hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor. (50)” Readers understand how indifferent and ignorant the narrator is in regard to Sonny’s music.

Sonny’s brother dissents with Sonny’s idea of making a living as a musician and insists he should finish school first. Finally, Sonny’s frustration explodes, “He slammed the window so hard I thought the glass would fly out, and turned back to me. ‘And I’m sick of the stink of these garbage cans! (52)'” The narrator describes the feelings and emotions of this exchange vividly so the reader understands the strong emotions and disagreement that exists. We see the difference in attitudes about life and music, which deepens the “chasm” between them. This difference leads to the long span of silence and misunderstanding.

The silence is finally broken after the narrator’s daughter dies of polio. Sonny’s brother writes him in prison, breaking himself out of his emotional defense towards his brother. “My trouble made his real (55),” states the narrator speaking of his letter and the new contact. The first step is taken, and from there the relationship starts building new foundations. Finally, after Sonny leaves prison, he comes to visit his brother in Harlem. When Sonny comes home the narrator momentarily feels “that icy dread again” as he watches his brother for signs of drug addiction, hating himself for being so suspicious but unable to prevent it (Bernardo, 1). This begins the road back to a true brotherhood for Sonny and the narrator, despite the questions that Sonny may be asked by his brother and the questionable future he may have.

While Sonny is visiting his brother in Harlem, the two brothers take a walk and happen upon a street revival where a group of musicians are playing. The brothers stop to listen, and the reader is given the suggestion that the brothers seem to come to a realization while listening. While watching, the narrator states that the music “seemed to soothe a poison out of them” which suggests his understanding of Sonny’s need for music. This scene then leads to Sonny’s invitation for his brother to come watch him play at the jazz club (Goldman, 232). Later that evening when Sonny and his brother arrive at the club the narrator is stricken by the celebrity that Sonny seems to hold at the club. Sonny’s brother notes:

“It turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone; there were some musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some where simply hangers-on, and some were there to see Sonny play. I was introduced to all of them, and they were all very polite to me. Yet it was clear that, for them, I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather, his kingdom. Here it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.” (59)

This statement alone is telling of the humbling experience Sonny’s brother is about to endure. He has finally realized that there is more to Sonny than heroin, piano, and failure. He is a successful person and he has a distinct and impressive talent for playing the jazz piano.

Finally the music begins, and as Sonny is sitting at his piano, slightly illuminated by an indirect light, the adventure starts for both Sonny and his brother. The first set is not one in which Sonny triumphs, but in the second, begun with “Am I Blue,” he takes the lead and begins to form a musical creation. He becomes, in the narrators words, “part of the family again” (61). The family that he joins is questionable, but I believe it is truly both families. He joins the family of jazz players, from whom he has been gone for so long, but he also rejoins his namesake family and reinstates his place with his brother. The set continues, with Sonny expressing himself with wildly flowing statements on his piano.

He is dripping with sweat, dripping with the loss of his pent up emotion and his relief of finally getting to play for his brother. The jazz begins to take on deeper meaning for the brothers, and the life they have led becomes one life, theirs as brothers. They no longer lived as individuals with separate lives and understandings. They finally reached an understanding of each other that only brothers could have between themselves. The music is simply a vehicle for arriving there.

The description Baldwin gives of the musical exchange is a work of beauty in itself. It is a statement of the power of the artist as a poet, the power of the musician. The ability to create out of oneself, to take the chaos of the world – especially the world Sonny lives in – into the self and represent it as the universal narrative (McBride, 200). The passage would not be nearly as effective if there had only been a simple overview of the scene. He brings music and emotion and brotherhood all together in one tight little package, making for one of the most moving scenes in American literature.

The final scene in “Sonny’s Blues” is striking and is dripping with real life emotion. The idea that one set of blues can bring together two brothers who have not talked in years is amazing, but so very true. The brothers have nothing in common between them apart from the same parents but they are forced through familial obligation to push aside those differences and show compassion and understanding for each other. These are the enduring qualities of brotherhood and they show that no matter how hard a person may try they still are in need of family.

This desire within the two brothers brings them together and allows them to truly understand what being a brother is really all about. The differences in the brothers eventually lead to their similarities and that is an amazing thing. Brotherhood transcends time, age, intelligence, failure, success, and grief. It is more than a choice and it is more than an obligation. Brotherhood is carnal and never-ending, and “Sonny’s Blues” captures the essence of brotherhood beautifully.


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