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Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin spent most of his adult life living in France, but is widely recognized as an essential American writer. Through the experiences of his youth in Harlem and the distance of his adulthood in France, Baldwin was able to both illustrate the unique nature of the black community as well as demonstrate its similarities to the white community while encouraging each race to listen to each other. In his short story “Sonny’s Blues,” for example, Baldwin focuses the story on the universally human concerns of providing for family and personal growth, thus creating a story that could be as easily concerned with white people as black. Through the unique sounds of the black neighborhood, though, Baldwin symbolizes how they are different and highlights the extreme importance and value of listening.

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Throughout the story, the narrator establishes himself as a completely human individual as he both blames himself and pities himself for his current life circumstances. He lives in the housing projects of New York and supports a younger brother who has just been released from jail following an arrest for dealing heroin. Although his early relationship with his brother is not revealed until well into the story, the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” reminds himself that he was unable to listen to his brother many years ago, which probably contributed to his brother’s isolation and drug use. Sonny begs his brother to send him out of Harlem by allowing him to join the Navy, providing several hints in the process that something is seriously wrong, but the narrator doesn’t listen to him. When Sonny tells his brother “I ain’t learning nothing in school. … Even when I go”, the narrator should have realized the hint that Sonny doesn’t often attend class. He further hints at trouble in the neighborhood when he says “At least, I ain’t learning nothing you’d want me to learn.” While he obviously only has Sonny’s best interests in mind, he is blind to the particular problems Sonny is facing. This is what Sonny refers to when he tells his brother, “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.”

In his profession, in his language and in his natural reactions to the events around him, the narrator comes across as white, allowing the white reader to identify to a greater degree with this man. As he begins to listen more carefully to what Sonny’s old friend has to say, the narrator begins to understand those around him at a greater depth than he has before, which is symbolized by the inclusion of music, uniquely black jazz music, in his narrative. He looks in at a barmaid as the old friend is talking and notices her interacting with other people in the bar. “And I watched her face as she laughingly responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the music. When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore.” This echoes his earlier insight into the young men he teaches when he heard a single whistle rise above the angry laughter of fellow classmates and begins to establish the connections between black and white Baldwin was encouraging.

The narrator’s growth can be seen in his response to Sonny at the end of the story, a response that provides hope for the future. This is, in part, brought about by the narrator’s willingness to reach out to his brother while he’s in prison and provide him with a home following prison, but also to Sonny’s willingness to give his brother another chance at reconciliation by inviting him to come to hear Sonny play. “I sensed, I don’t know-how, that I couldn’t possibly say no,” the narrator says, finally coming to the realization that he must hear his brother before he can hope to help him. Although he’s never understood Sonny’s music before, the narrator agrees to try and Sonny tells him, “There’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside. You can’t talk to it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.” The narrator’s ability to finally understand what is being said through Sonny’s music later that evening and Sonny’s reception of the message sent through the Scotch and milk, suggests a more understanding future.

As Baldwin weaves the narrative through sound and storyline, black and white readers are able to identify with it on a personal level, recognizing in the action something familiar and recognizing in the sound something strange. As the protagonist grows to at least attempt to listen to what his brother is saying, Baldwin is encouraging both black and white readers to attempt to communicate with the other. That the black man is the victim in the relationship is not called into question as Sonny is prevented from taking the protective measures he knew he needed and continues to plead with his brother to hear him, but forgiveness is required if things are to be made better.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. R.V. Cassil & Richard Bausch (Eds.). 6th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 1). Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin.

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"Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin." StudyCorgi, 1 Nov. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin." November 1, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin." November 1, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin." November 1, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Hearing “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin'. 1 November.

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