Sonny uses the hours in jail before his mother bails him out to read through The Souls of Black Folk, even though he’s read it four times already. When Willie comes through the doors of the station lugging her broom, Sonny is reminded of how embarrassed he had always been to see her lug it around.
The beginning of Sonny’s story has parallels with the beginning of Yaw’s story, as both focus on revolutionary-minded literature. Yet it is easy to see how their stories differ, prompted by a difference in family history and heritage: Sonny reads his book in jail, while Yaw is writing his own book from the comfort of his personal office.
Willie asks how many times he has to end up in jail, but Sonny is frustrated, too. He has spent hours marching, countless nights in jail cells, and endured many bruises from the police. For Sonny, the problem is that segregation is impossible in America. He wants to go back to Africa. Willie shouts at him, telling him that he needs to spend less time in jail and more time with his kids.
Sonny is on the housing team at the NAACP, and once a week he goes to the different neighborhoods in Harlem to ask how people are faring. Sonny can remember when Eli had left and took the month’s rent with him, and they had ended up in an apartment with forty other people. As he goes around to the buildings, people tell him about the roaches and rats and ask if he can do anything.
Sonny’s chapter examines how the segregation laws in America constitute state-sanctioned racism. Even though the laws claim to purport equality between white and black people, Sonny sees how in practice, the conditions are anything but equal.
Sonny had been arrested during march after march, and punched in the face when he had already been arrested. Reverend George Lee was fatally shot while trying to register to vote; a pregnant woman named Rosa Jordan was shot while riding a newly desegregated bus.
The examples Sonny gives here also show how even those men and women simply following the law or exercising their rights are still in danger of losing their lives because of their race.
One day, Sonny is sitting on a bench with the man who sweeps the barbershops on Seventh. He asks what the man does when he feels helpless. The man gives him a bag of dope. He quits his job at the NAACP and flushes the bag down the toilet.
Although Sonny avoids dope this time, the man in the barbershop makes it clear how prevalent drug addictions are and how initially drugs can be used as coping mechanisms for an oppressive and seemingly unchangeable system.
Sonny stays with Willie between jobs. His friend Mohammed tells him that he should join the Nation of Islam, which he can’t do as long as his mother is a devout Christian woman. Mohammed asks how much school he’s had. Sonny remembers how he’d skipped school because of how they had been compared to the white schools. Mohammed helps him get a job at a new jazz club in East Harlem called the Jazzmine.
The Nation of Islam was an organization that converged Islamic beliefs with a movement focusing on black empowerment, which rose to popularity in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement’s calls for desegregation as a means of fighting racism.
At the Jazzmine, Sonny quickly becomes head bartender. One night, he meets a woman named Amani Zulema. After she gets a drink from him, she stands and gets on the stage to scat. The room is captivated by her singing. Sonny is reminded of the first time Willie sang in church.
Even a generation later, jazz remains an important cultural art, though it is notable that the audience is no longer exclusively white, as it had been in the jazz club in which Willie worked.
Sonny moves in with some people he knows in the projects on the East Side. He gives Willie his address, and his mother gives it to an ex-girlfriend of his named Lucille. Lucille and her daughter show up at his door, asking for money. Sonny tells her he doesn’t have any money and sends her away.
Willie becomes disappointed in her son as he starts to act more and more like his father, taking advantage of the fact that he doesn’t have to have responsibility for his children and putting the burden onto his ex-girlfriends.
Sonny is frustrated. He hadn’t wanted children, but he had ended up with three: Angela’s daughter, Rhonda’s daughter, and Lucille’s daughter. Willie gives each of them money every month even though Sonny had told her to stop and had told the women to stop asking her.
Even though Sonny tells her not to, Willie assumes responsibility for her grandchildren because she knows what it was like to have been a single mother herself.
When Angela had given birth to their daughter, Sonny was only fifteen. He had wanted to marry her, but her parents had sent her to Alabama and wouldn’t let him see her or his daughter. They had said he was basically good-for-nothing, and he figured they were probably right.
Even though Sonny had given up responsibility of his children, it is also clear that this wasn’t entirely his intention, but that others also made assumptions about his inability to be a good father, which created a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Two days later, Sonny is back at the Jazzmine, asking when Amani will be back. One of the men at the club tells him he shouldn’t want anything to do with her, but he ignores the man. Three months later, he finds her at the club, sleeping at a table. He taps her awake and she asks what he wants. He says he wants her.
Whereas with other characters, relationships serve to provide characters with opportunity and hope for the future, Amani serves as an exception as she instead pulls Sonny into a downward spiral of drugs and the inability to hold a job.
Amani leads Sonny into the street. He asks her about her name; she says it means “harmony” in Swahili. She says that she likes the name, but that she isn’t into the “Back to Africa business.” She explains that they can’t go back to something they haven’t been to in the first place. The two then go to a housing project in West Harlem. She leads him into a room where two women and a man are passing a needle around. He watches Amani join them, and she asks if he still wants her.
Amani’s points serve as one of the main arguments of the book: as Marjorie’s experiences also point out in the next chapter, the difference in the legacy of slavery in America versus in Ghana has caused the two branches of people to have severely different histories, cultures, and obstacles.
Time passes. Sonny wakes up from one of his stupors, hearing Willie call out his name. He feels sick. He’s a forty-five year old dope fiend, and he knows he needs help. When his mother leaves, unable to find him, he picks himself up off the ground and goes out into the street.
Sonny’s drug addiction almost feels inevitable based on the prevalence of drugs around him, his unhappy relationship with his mother, and his struggle to hope for improvement in the world.
When Sonny arrives home, Amani asks where he’s been, explaining that Willie had come by. Sonny eats around the mold of a piece of bread. Amani tells him that he should go see his mother for Sunday dinner—she might give him money. Sonny doubts it, but he promises he’ll go see her.
One of the tragedies of Sonny’s chapter is in seeing how damaging Robert’s disappearance had been on Sonny, and how their family had become so broken that Sonny only goes to see his mother to ask for money.
Sonny keeps a bag of dope in his shoe as reassurance as he walks to Willie’s house. The last time he had really seen her was in 1964, during the riots. She had given him money, telling him that she didn’t want to see him dead or worse. All around them, black people were being gunned down by the police.
In showing how desperate Sonny is while simultaneously mentioning the discrimination and violence that black people were facing in America, the book implies how previous forms of oppression had made people like Sonny far more susceptible to this kind of downward spiral.
Josephine answers the door at dinner, telling him that he’s an hour and a half late. Sonny eats as Josephine and Willie watch, before Josephine leaves them to talk. Willie starts to tell him about Robert, and how he had left her and started a family with a white woman.
In the same way that Akua’s explanation to Yaw about their family history and her actions helps him to understand himself, Willie’s revelation about Robert makes Sonny more aware of his identity and the circumstances of his father’s disappearance.
Willie goes on to say that Sonny had been an angry child, because he was born to a man who could choose his life, but he would never be able to choose his own. She tells him that white men get to choose their lives, and get to choose what happens to black men too.
Willie highlights the major power disparity between white and black men in society, and knows that Robert was able to overcome this power disparity, but at the expense of his black identity.
Willie pulls out a wad of cash and tells him to take it if he wants. Sonny wants to take the money, scream, and find somewhere to shoot up the dope in his shoe. But instead, he stays.
Marcus says in the next chapter that he feels that he was given opportunity over others purely by chance; this passage in a way confirms that feeling, because Sonny could just as easily have turned away from his mother and continued that downward spiral. But only through willpower and the support from his family is he able to turn his life around.