The central concern of “Sonny’s Blues” is suffering: Baldwin emphasizes that suffering is universal, and that it is also cyclical—that suffering tends to lead to more suffering. Baldwin demonstrates the effects of suffering on several different scales: he shows the way suffering affects an individual life, the way it affects a family throughout generations, and the way it affects a society overall.
The story—set in 1950s Harlem, a New York neighborhood that was then at the center of urban black life—is particularly concerned with the difficult lives that await young black men in America. This is shown through the narrator’s reflections on the sad futures that his high school students face (lives of drugs, violence, and rage at having “their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities”), as well as the narrator’s and Sonny’s difficulty leaving Harlem despite their desire to get out. Baldwin shows that suffering is a central component of the African American experience, and Harlem is portrayed as a trap—a place of violence and suffering that, because of the trauma and racism its residents experience, is nearly impossible to escape.
Throughout the course of the story, Baldwin also reveals the parallel suffering occurring in the lives of different members of the narrator’s family, which emphasizes the echoes between the sufferings of previous generations and the suffering of the present. For instance, the narrator’s father’s despair over having watched his brother die mirrors the narrator’s own guilt and sadness about his failure to help Sonny with his addiction. Baldwin is not optimistic, either, about the next generation—the narrator, despite his becoming a schoolteacher, has not been able to provide better opportunities for his own children. They live in a rundown housing project and his daughter died an agonizing death of polio. He worries that his sons, like Sonny, will fall into the drugs that are everywhere on the streets of their neighborhood. This suggests that suffering is passed down generationally.
“Sonny’s Blues” also explores the ways that individual suffering ruins lives, particularly due to people’s reticence or inability to talk about their suffering. Baldwin shows how private suffering turns people bitter, estranges relationships, and even leads people to illness, addiction, or death. This is revealed most poignantly through the narrator who, at first glance, seems to be living a better life than Sonny. As the story progresses, however, we begin to understand the magnitude of the narrator’s anger, bitterness, and fear—he seems obsessed with avoiding the suffering that has plagued his family and community, but that obsession has effectively meant that he is fixated on suffering in a way that makes him miserable. While Sonny is more able to speak of his suffering than the narrator, he too seems to have been overwhelmed by suffering, which led him to addiction (itself a microcosm of self-perpetuating suffering), legal trouble, and temporary estrangement from his brother.
Baldwin does not promise an easy escape to such overwhelming suffering, but he does give hints that the burden of these cycles of suffering can be lessened. The narrator’s epiphany at the jazz club shows the importance of expressing suffering in order to take control of it, and Sonny’s friendships with musicians show how creating community can bring relief.
Cycles of Suffering ThemeTracker
Cycles of Suffering Quotes in Sonny’s Blues
These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities.
I certainly didn’t want to know how it felt. It filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid, with menace; and this menace was their reality.
I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.
Boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind.
The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.
You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside…Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see.
The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely….The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk anymore because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.
“He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away.”
“I ain’t telling you all this,” she said, “to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed.”
“You got to hold on to your brother,” she said, “and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him. You going to be evil with him many a time. But don’t you forget what I told you, you hear?…You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.”
“Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don’t.” He was very earnest. He looked at me, then over towards the kitchen window. There was something in his eyes I’d never seen before, some thoughtfulness, some worry all his own. He rubbed the muscle of one arm. “It’s time I was getting out of here.”
I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried. I was sitting in the living-room in the dark, by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real.
Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them….As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.
“When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And—and sure….It makes you feel—in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.”
They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. 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.
I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.