The first-person story is narrated by older brother whose name we never learn. He teaches algebra and was in the army. His brother, Sonny, a musician has a heroin addiction. Painful events weave through the family as they try to survive and prosper in Harlem. The narrator finds out as an adult that his father's brother was murdered by white men in a car. The narrator's young daughter dies of polio and it is only after this that he reaches out to his brother although he tries to impose his own way of life onto his brother. He withholds his compassion until he finally hears Sonny play the piano downtown with Creole.
My overall impression is that this story gives many life lessons. The way we treat people is important and realizing that everyone has their own path and that if you want to be helpful, then guidance is all that is needed. Sonny ached for someone to listen. Isabel and her parents were judgmental and drove Sonny away by criticizing his constant piano playing. He was vulnerable and in pain.
Baldwin has created a multi-layered story that tells us that indeed we are our brother's keeper and that people, their triumphs and suffering, while not new, need to be heard. "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."
James Baldwin was an important speaker during the civil rights movement. He was unafraid to speak the truth as well as explain it.
"Sonny's Blues" was first published in the collection, Going to Meet the Man, 1965. However, the story was written in 1957.
Charlie Parker, "Bird," is the musician Sonny admires most. Reading this story reminded me that I shot a photo of Birdland Jazz Club on West 44th St. in 2011. Although, in the story, the narrator probably went to the original one on Broadway and 52nd, maybe. I'm not sure.
Wikipedia page about Baldwin
PBS article about Baldwin, American Master
Bio TV page about Baldwin
African American Literature, page about Baldwin with lots of detail and video clips
James Baldwin Project by Paul Reuben
YouTube Civil Rights Roundtable, 1963, 30 minutes long