“Sonny’s Blues”: How Society Changes People's Lives

Categories: Social Issues


The short story “Sonny’s Blues” is set in the destitute environment Black Harlem. James Baldwin employs a different narrative technique by telling the story of the main character, Sonny, an African-American man from Harlem with an unknown narrator who is the older brother and functions as the narrative mouthpiece of his younger brother. A huge migration of Blacks from the rural south to the urban north of America led to years of struggles faced by the City, a phenomenon which was coined the “The Great Depression”.

Harlem, in the 1950s, is faced with a high number of drug addicts, unemployment, poverty, crime rate and lawlessness in the community which affects most of the residents, especially the younger generations, who tend to see drugs as an escape from all the happenings in the society. Their way out from the tribulation they are facing later turned out to even hurt them.

Apart from the school, society also plays a pivotal role in shaping one’s behaviour positively or negatively but in the case of Sonny, the narrator and every other person in the story are one way or another affected.

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In this case, Harlem influences Sonny in a negative and at the same time in a positive way. Sonny, who was rejected later became a source of joy to the people in their time of sorrow, “and some were there to hear Sonny play” (Baldwin 44). The town is portrayed as an overwhelming darkness carrying with it is extensive anger and despair in the whole community.

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In the midst of all these darkness that James Baldwin centres his short story on, some people made good use of the situation why others couldn’t. Blacks were suffering and at the same time smiling anytime they converge at bars and nightclubs. This mini term paper aims to analyse and talk about the societal influence and detrimental effects of drug abuse in Sonny’s Blues.

Harlem as a Society

Society has been influencing people’s behaviour for decades, the society one lives in dictate or tells the kind of person one becomes. The family, society, school and sometimes religion help in shaping one’s life. The society is an agent of socialization which influences people’s conduct through the ideas accepted by majority of the population or by all the dwellers in a place. Harlem is not different from such a society in which young people tend to internalize the attitude of the society. The community never helped but added more miseries to the life of the inhabitants such is the case of Sonny and the narrator. People living in a destitute society tend to take up what it has to offer.

The environment is everything that affects the individual except his genes. There are many potential environmental influences that help to shape personality. These include the place we live and the people around us. Our experiences in our day to day life, as well as the people whom we associated with such as our family, friends, people in the school, in the church and the community as a whole, all influences our personality. (“How Environment affects Personality Essay”)

The movement of African-Americans from the southern to the northern part of America led to years of scramble face by the community, an event which birthed the name 'The Great Depression'. Harlem, in the 1950s, is faced with huge number of drug addicts, prostitution, low payment of wages, unemployment, poverty, crime rate and lawlessness in the community which affects most of the residents, especially the younger generations, who tend to see drugs as an escape from all the happenings in the society. After the Great Depression which arose in the early 19th century, Harlem became a large African-American community in the northern part of New York. Once the war was over/After the war a lot of African-American departed the South to escape the discrimination they are facing. From 1910 to 1920, high number of blacks moved from the rural south into the urban Northwest in a great migration. The Blacks population in Chicago more than doubled during this time, and in New York African-Americans settled in a place called Black Harlem.

The aftermath of the World War I brought about the movement of African-Americans in their large numbers to big cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and a whole lot more. The migration foreshadowed the long run shift of Blacks from rural to urban population in which an estimation of seven hundred to one million African-Americans left the South. In addition, eight hundred to one million also left during 1920s (Trotter, The Great Migration 31). Many factors led to the movement of the Blacks, they sought for another option instead of settling for agriculture, rejection and racial discrimination in the South. Apart from that, the high demand of labour in industries, coupled with high wages workers receive in the industries is another reason for embarking on the journey of no return, as Trotter claims, “Wages in northern industries usually ranged from $3 to $5 per eight-hour day, compared to as little as $.75 to $1 per day in southern agriculture and to no more than $2.50 for a nine-hour day in southern industries” (32). Furthermore, letters of positivity that were received countless times from the early migrants also prompted the movement.

One black man wrote back to his southern home, “The (Col.) men are making good. [The job] never pays less than $3.00 per day for (10) hours . In her letter home, a black female related, “I am well and thankful to say I am doing well ... I work in Swifts Packing Company.” “Up here,” another migrant said, “Our people are in a different light.” Over and over again, African Americans confirmed that: “Up here, a man can be a man.” As one southern black man wrote home from the North, “I should have been here twenty years ago ... I just begin to feel like a man... My children are going to the same school with the whites and I don't have to humble to no one. I have registered. Will vote in the next election and there isn't any yes Sir or no Sir. It's all yes and no, Sam and Bill.” (Trotter, The Great Migration 32 ).

The Blacks were so happy for the chance to better their lives to the extent that the movement is viewed differently in many terms, namely: “The Promised Land”, “The Flight out of Egypt”, and “Going into Canaan”. (Trotter, The Great Migration 32). But the trooping in of the African-Americans to the North in mass is not a welcome idea by the Northerners. White labourers later accused the Blacks of flooding the employment markets and lowering wages. High increment of rents also added more to the plight Blacks encountered from the Whites in the North. The Blacks had no other option than to look elsewhere to live. These and many more brought about the creation of urban slums, ghettos like Harlem, which is the largest environ of African-Americans. In the midst of all these tribulation is where the unnamed narrator, Sonny and other characters in “Sonny’s Blues” find themselves.

In spite of all these, some Blacks made good use of the situation and were able to escape the despair in the society. Harlem still has its name on high regard not only because of the Great Migration but because of notable writers, musicians and politicians the community produce in the midst of terror. John Raymond Jones also known as “Harlem Fox”, a politician from Harlem and the first African-American to lead New York. The author, James Baldwin, also caught in the cobwebs of suffering, injustice and racial discrimination, had to leave Harlem for France in order to escape the racist abuse and homophobia that threaten to choke his life.

Influence of Harlem on Sonny

Just the way the situation in Harlem brought out the best in James Baldwin, Sonny, though had a rough start but ended up being celebrated. The community had negative and positive role it’s played in Sonny’s life. Sonny, the narrator and along with most of the other characters, are in one way or another trapped in a battle of despair while some are able to elude partially if not totally. Harlem brought good and bad behaviour out of Sonny, he started as a devil due to his arrest, “He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin” (Baldwin 17). His life was like a puzzle he needed to rearrange after he was released from jail. Though he actually made amendment to his way of life but could not drop drugs.

He wouldn’t have gone through all the hurdles he faced at the early stage of his life if only he had a family. Although, he later became an angel with his jazz music in the sense that he makes people dance “Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played” (Baldwin 47). His spirit of addiction and perseverance later paid off for him. As a minor, he learnt playing the piano on his own when people around him didn’t see sense in what he was doing. Isabel, the narrator’s described that by saying “it was like living with sound.

And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make sense to any of them – naturally” (Baldwin 35). After trying on different occasions to dodge the adversities in Harlem, Sonny turn to jazz music as the only solution. And to the Black communities, jazz music is as important as the bars and nightclubs they visit on weekends. The performance of jazz music in nightclubs did not just bring people together but it also give them hope, all these happen because he is seen as their source of happiness. Music, gives rest of mind and he is the mastermind of bringing peace to the people’s mind. In anything you do, try to be the best as you can is the case of Sonny, the community has many musicians but his own performance standout.

Speaking of surviving in a place like Harlem is not just an easy thing, people get internalize with what happens in their society, difference is not expected from Sonny, though he was lost but found himself. Beaten by the happenings surrounding him, he became an addict. The situation in Harlem did not create a chance for anyone to be different but to dance to the tune others are dancing to. Sonny’s case is just the same as the gold we use, its passes through a lot in the hand of a blacksmith before becoming the ornament people wear on their neck.

Detrimental Effect of Drugs in Sonny’s Blues

People derive pleasure in injecting or taking drugs of any form but the end result is what most people cannot withstand. James Baldwin, apart from talking about the suffering Blacks faced in Harlem, also centres his short story on addiction and the outcome of drugs. Hence, most Blacks in the community during this era turned to drugs as a way out from their ordeal. Addiction to drugs causes a lot of havoc that is more intense than the satisfaction people derive from using drugs. Instead of getting depressed of the situation in Harlem, alcohol and smoking was picked up by majority of the characters in the short story.

The narrator, apart from being an algebra teacher, is also a smoker. During a conversation with Sonny’s friend at the beginning of the story, “Good for you” I offered him a cigarette and I watched him through the smoke. “You come all the way down just to tell me about Sonny” (Baldwin 19). Such is the case of Sonny, who was also arrested for drug peddling, dealings with heroine and also doubles as a jazz musician. Bars and night clubs played a significant role in the lives of the people in the community because it is the place where they forget the whole hardship they are facing. Although, it was saving them but at the same time killing them. What ought to become the way out from the whole adversities later turn out to cause them a lot of damage. The narrator lost his uncle as an act of addiction on the part of both the uncle and the driver, though the latter is a white man, “They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes, you know. But they was drunk. And I guess the boy, being drunk, too and scared, kind of lost his head. By the time he jumped it was too late” (Baldwin 29). That death, cause their father not to be in his right senses till he died.

Furthermore, Sonny’s junky friend lived a miserable life he never enjoyed due to his involvement with drugs. He allowed the whole situation in Harlem get to him that he couldn’t make good use of his life, he does nothing but wanders on the streets. The narrator did justice to that by saying “And now, even though he was a grown up man, he still hung around that block, still spent hours on the street corners, was always high and raggy” (Baldwin 19). The students instead of learning in school choose drugs as a better option than education, what is even expected from a failed society like that, if not engaging in drugs, “Yet it had happened and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could” (Baldwin 19). Engaging in drugs cause more harm that one can imagine, a wasted live and useless to oneself and Harlem at large.


Even though the Great migration came to an end, African-Americans in Harlem and other part of United States didn’t find the happiness they were in search of but rather had to pass through years of tribulations. On the other hand, these same years of suffering birthed notable writers, jazz musicians that can’t be forgotten in the history of Harlem.

Baldwin’s choice of word is top notch, he present Creole as the band leader of the group Sonny perform with at the last and crucial part of the story is ironical. He tried as much as possible to make the narrator realise the usefulness of his roots as illustrated in Sonny’s playing of blues. Creoles are popularly known as descendants of French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana. From the early 1800s, the Creoles are well-educated and cultured set of people, some of them even went as far as schooling in Europe. Music is also a pivotal aspect of their lives. In the words of James Collier

The black Creole was what was called a 'legitimate' musician. He could read music; he did not improvise; and he was familiar with the standard repertory of arias, popular songs, and marches that would have been contained in any white musician's song bag. The point is important: The Creole musician was entirely European in tradition, generally scornful of the blacks from across the tracks who could not read music and who played those 'low down' blues.

At the same, the short story shows the importance of family and how society reshapes people’s lives to what they never wanted to become in life. In the same vein, not everything is appropriate to internalize in the society, choose the meaningful ones and drop the odds. And also the rejected can be accepted only if there is adjustment to one’s lifestyle.


  1. Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 17-48. Print.
  2. “How Environment affects Personality Essay.” All Answers Ltd. ukessays.com, November 2018. Web. 1 February 2020.
  3. Trotter, Joe William. “The Great Migration.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 17, no. 1, 2002, pp. 31–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25163561. Accessed 2 Feb. 2020.
  4. McInelly, C. “John Raymond Jones” (1899–1991). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/jones-john-raymond-1899-1991. (2017, April 03)
  5. Samuels, W. “James Baldwin” (1924-1987). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/baldwin-james-1924-1987. (2007, January 23)
  6. Albert, Richard N. “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin's ‘Sonny's Blues.’” College Literature, vol. 11, no. 2, 1984, pp. 178–185. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25111592. Accessed 13 Feb. 2020.
Updated: Dec 02, 2021
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“Sonny’s Blues”: How Society Changes People's Lives. (2021, Dec 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/sonny-s-blues-how-society-changes-people-s-lives-essay

“Sonny’s Blues”: How Society Changes People's Lives essay
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