Music and Witness in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

It is undeniable that Sonny’s Blues is purposefully ambiguous in its title: it is about music and his sorrows. Sonny’s blues are little brother’s blues. In a way, in our own lives, we always have some “older brother”: someone looming over us telling us what to do or shitting on our dreams as a form of love out of “what’s best for us” (exactly what are you going to do with that “Art” degree?).

Sonny mopes around the house wanting to drop out of school to become a musician. his father isn’t having it, probably for witnessing his own brother’s death. His own brother (sonny’s uncle) was flattened, reduced to wood, “blood, and pulp.” The wood was his guitar. Walking in the moonlight, Sonny’s uncle (a teenager at the time) was run overr by drunk drivers, drunk enough to want to scare him, too drunk to swerve out of the way, white enough to keep driving. Sonny’s father wouldn’t let this happen again, not on his watch.

Oddly enough, the story is told in first person narrative through Sonny’s unnamed older brother (who I shall now refer to as OB). OB is as clueless as he is stable (clueless therefore stable?). He’s so far out of the loop but it’s safe there because in the loop of Harlem, is darkness, Baldwin writes. In the loop there is the cycle, and the cycle affects everyone; the wisest way it was put was through Sonny’s mama: “It aint a question of [Sonny] being a good boy or his having good sense. It ain’t only the badness, not yet the dumb ones that get sucked under.” Why is it that we want maximum punishment for those who have wronged us and that we want minimum punishment (and maximum empathy) for those who we have wronged?

When we commit a wrong, we want our story told, to show people we are still good people, though human and flawed. We feel terrible about what we’ve done–some of us take longer to feel because we are ashamed, in denial, or unable to rehearse self-love and self-control–and want a second chance. Reader, even a second is still too meager. You deserve more than a second chance.

But people in Harlem don’t get second chances. People like Sonny get into heroin, people like Juanita (see: Rape, The Backseat Story…) get labeled: “that addict who…” as if all of us did not have some form of addiction and refuse to say so–yes, i’m addicted to ______ and it doesn’t make me feel less of a human being. It doesn’t make you less of a human being. Drugs are scary yes, it’s also the case that using them is far more dangerous than reading gossip on the Kardashians (OR IS IT?) and there’s no excuse for neglecting the obligations of citizenship (general adulting) and the duty to your society. Additions help you escape and yes, when the escape is the reality, it’s a problem. I’m not making a case for drugs; I’m making a case for empathy and understanding: bad things happen to good and intelligent people. Good and intelligent people make bad decisions and get unlucky (like a virgin getting pregnant the first time she has sex, even with a condom). They need our support, not scorn. This is what the beggar reminded OB about.

This “beggar”, unkempt with yellow teeth and yellow eyes, was Sonny’s friend who had come to tell OB the news of Sonny’s imprisonment. When OB was asked what he was going to do he said he couldn’t do anything and the “bum” said, mystically: “ that’s right…ain’t nothing you can do. Can’t help old Sonny no more I guess.” OB, the Algebra teacher, getting taught by this “bum”. OB was good on his word until his youngest daughter died (of complications with polio) and felt the impulse to write Sonny a letter. Sonny wrote back:

“Dear Brother,
You don’t know how much i needed to hear from you.” and still I get tears in my eyes writing those words because I wish I would have said the same and still at times they echo inside, longing for she or he who has left me in silence too long. I know I’m not alone. Maybe you are waiting to hear from an estranged friend, lover, or your mom, or dad, or brother, or Truth. In Sonny’s naked appreciation, Baldwin grabs me by the throat with emotion and reminds me of the people who need me, to hear from me, the people who I need to hear.

Sonny was happy to hear from OB but this story, is about OB needing to hear from Sonny. This story is bout the saving grace of music. To Baldwin, Music is the ‘light’ to the ‘darkness’. The darkness is a) life and b) movies, OB says. The former, the “bum” explain the cycle: rehab, jail, then set him loose, that’s all.” The latter, probably means media and distractions ( This is America )

In the last scene Sonny reaches OB (finally) with his music. The entire length of this short story OB walks around robotically, a foreigner in hi own land but with music he is given a second chance at life. “I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the firs time…I saw the moonlit road where my  father’s brother died…I saw my little girl…I felt my own tears.” This life is feminine. It is the same love (Sonny’s music) as his mama’s to his father’s as she told him “your father always acted like he was the roughest, strongest man..but if he hadn’t me there—to see his tears…” that is what we can do..must do: witness. Be there.

In sum, music and witness saves us from darkness.

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