James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” exemplifies suffering as the major theme depicted through the struggle of two brothers as they try to understand one another. Baldwin’s underlying message deals with the hardships that African-Americans endured through the mid twentieth century, a time when race determined your status in society. The brothers appear to be completely different people throughout the story but nearing its end, Sonny’s brother finally begins to understand Sonny’s bizarre ways.
Sonny’s brother seems to be living a sound life on the outside, but soon realizes that he has been suppressing the suffering he has endured in his lifetime. Having lost his uncle, mother and father already, Sonny is dealing with the recent death of his daughter Grace and living in Harlem’s inadequate housing projects. Although Sonny is struggling, his brother still has feelings of resent towards his lifestyle. He never approved of Sonny’s, love for jazz music, referring to people who enjoyed jazz as “good-time people” who do not really care for much else.
What he does not know, but later realizes, is that Sonny uses his love for jazz music as an outlet for all the “darkness” and “suffering” that he has lived through. This parallels the time when black slaves sang ‘Spirituals’ during the middle passage to tell the story of the hardships they persevered. Sonny on the other hand, sees his brother as one of the many people “living in hell”: those who knowingly accept the discriminatory reality of being a black man in America in the 1940’s.
Nearing the end of the story, we are introduced to one of Sonny’s band members, Creole, who appears to be Sonny’s mentor. He is an “enormous black man” (639) who is very caring and helps Sonny’s brother come to understand Sonny. Creole reasons with Sonny’s brother so he can finally see the passion and, more importantly, the connection that Sonny has with music. It is the “only light [he has] in all this darkness” (641).