In James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator is a spectator observing the urban decay and despair around him, particularly how it affects his younger brother, Sonny, a jazz musician and heroin addict. Though he always watches, he is curiously detached from things around him and does not understand his brother until the end of the story, when he sees that Sonny’s approach to dealing with life differs radically from his own.The narrator, a math teacher, is curiously detached from his own existence in Harlem, where he witnesses many of his fellow blacks driven to drugs, crime, and despair by the poverty and inequality around them. Because he has “made it,” he does not relate to the very people he observes on a daily basis.
For example, after learning of Sonny’s arrest in a drug raid, he looks out his classroom window (a metaphor for how he sees but is detached from his surroundings), watches his students in the courtyard below, and feels as though their high spirits would doom them to trouble in this poor, desperate place. Though he too is black and grew up here, he does not relate to them, imagining that they will become Sonny, to whom he also does not relate.He mainly observes fellow blacks’ poverty and desperation, borne out in their faces. As a teacher, he sees young people in this poor neighborhood lose their childhood innocence and become beaten down or misled, but he does not intervene or try to halt the process – even in his own brother. As he says, “I certainly didn’t want to know how it felt. It filled everything, the people the houses, the music . .
. with menace; and this menace was their reality” (707). He sees it but chooses not to make it his own or even comprehend it, so that while he is an observer, he genuinely sees little.However, the reader sees a bit of why the narrator takes this approach when he rides in a cab with Sonny. Looking out at Harlem, he remarks, “Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and eave it in the trap” (709). One surmises that he left behind Sonny, who was much younger and more vulnerable than the narrator, and needed guidance that the narrator should have provided but did not.
In the same way that their father failed to prevent his own brother’s death, the narrator has been passive in dealing Sonny and feels powerless to even understand him; his description of the teenaged Sonny – “it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him” (717) – sums it up.At his apartment, the narrator looks out his window and watches a revival meeting where few onlookers seem to feel the spirit of salvation – indeed, few are saved in this place. When Sonny appears, he seems to prove the narrator’s belief that his brother is beyond saving and does not agree with Sonny’s ways of escaping the place’s pain. Both escaped from their surroundings – the narrator through his career, and Sonny through drugs and music.At the jazz club, however, the narrator develops a new understanding of Sonny when he sees how people in the hipster world respect him: “I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world.
Or, rather: his kingdom” (724). Sonny struggles to play at first, but then plays an inspired blues which expresses the “ruin, destruction, madness, and death” (726) that surround them. Finally, the narrator sees Sonny clearly, understanding how his experiences shaped him and how he responds to their environment – by providing a musical respite from it.
The story demonstrates how one can be an observer without really understanding one’s surroundings. The narrator detaches himself from Harlem’s bleakness even while he looks at it, while Sonny (who seems like a victim of their surroundings) actually understands it, faces it, and liberates himself from it in his own way – through art instead of self-isolation.