New Criticism

Saving Sonny’s Brother

Netanya Hitchcock

Marshall & Wendell ESTABLISHED 1836

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story of intergenerational trauma in which two brothers strive in very different ways to escape their parents’ suffering. On the surface, the objective is to save the younger brother, Sonny, who has been incarcerated for drug abuse, but his older brother’s failure to recognize jazz as the cure shows otherwise. Rejection of jazz in the story parallels fear of suffering, revealing signs of intergenerational trauma in the older brother and placing him in danger of becoming like their father. He flees suffering by avoiding any context in which it occurs–specifically, his community–but, ironically, one must face suffering in order to overcome it. In Baldwin’s story, jazz is the means for doing so. As Emmanuel S. Nelson writes, jazz is “a musical form that has evolved out of the African’s nightmarish experience in America” (29). Subsequently, jazz is not a cure for Sonny alone. By establishing ties with the Black community through a shared story of suffering, jazz delivers both brothers from their fear. The older brother is able to heal from intergenerational trauma when he recognizes his community’s suffering as his own through Sonny’s blues.

Sonny’s brother has been afraid of suffering since childhood. As a child, he would listen to his parents and grandparents tell stories of their experiences with racial prejudice. The stories frightened him, but he was more frightened by the prospect of the stories becoming his own. When the grown-ups would stop talking for the evening, he always sensed that he was moving closer to the darkness they had “come from” and “endure[d]”. He realized they stopped talking “because if he [knew] too much about what…[had] happened to them, he’[d] know too much too soon, about what…[would] happen to him” (Baldwin 131). He wished they would go on talking because, for as long as they talked, the stories were only stories, and the darkness the grown-ups had come from remained within those stories. But with the silence came growing fear, and fear, bringing the darkness, made his troubles real (134). His solution, then, is to suppress all fear with denial.

He spends his adult life refusing to believe trouble when he encounters it, consistently striving to prevent his parents’ stories from happening to him. The death of his daughter symbolizes his characteristic denial. Her fever seemed to be no cause for concern, so he did not call the doctor, but her death came unexpectedly (139). In a similar way, he underestimates Sonny’s situation. Attributing the “menace” of hardship solely to others–to Sonny’s friend, the barmaid, and the community in general (125)–he naïvely promises his mother that he will never let anything happen to Sonny. However, such a promise is impossible to keep because it denies reality. In the end, he forgets his promise anyway, even failing to “let [Sonny] know [he]’s there” for him (133). The consequence of his error in the case of his daughter’s death serves as a harsh lesson, foreshadowing what will happen to Sonny if the brother remains willfully ignorant of suffering.

However, the brother’s denial not only threatens to harm Sonny but also himself. Similar to Sonny’s drugs, the brother’s mindset is incompatible with healthy living. Ironically, willfully blinding himself to suffering renders him incapable of escaping it, let alone protecting Sonny, for he cannot flee what he does not see. When he learns about his uncle’s murder for the first time, he cannot bear the implication that the world is just as hateful as it ever was and that Sonny could also be in danger (133). Even Sonny’s drug abuse and incarceration remain unreal to him until the day when his little daughter dies, forcing him into undeniable grief and suffering for the very first time and making Sonny’s troubles real (139). This experience reveals that denial prevents the brother from finding solutions to both Sonny’s troubles and his own, for problems cannot be solved if they are misunderstood. Subsequently, the brother’s neglect of Sonny is also the neglect of his own needs.

The brother must recognize suffering in order to survive it. In “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community”, Emmanuel S. Nelson observes that accepting suffering and identifying with one’s community are crucial to self-discovery (27). The brother’s unwillingness to listen to Sonny’s music symbolizes his denial of the sufferings he shares with Sonny. Beyond this, his disapproval of jazz and his inability to know Sonny underscore his distance from the Black community, being the consequence of his fear of suffering, indicating that both Sonny and the Black community are instrumental in making suffering real for him. This separation and the compounded lack of understanding prevent the brother from knowing himself. Learning to listen to Sonny’s music, then, is not only about getting to know Sonny or the community. Rather, it is about the brother accepting himself and his life with all its difficulties and sorrows.

Just as music is a medium of healing for Sonny (Baldwin 138), Sonny is a medium of healing for the brother. However, the brother does not realize this for some time because he refuses to acknowledge that the sufferings of both Sonny and the Black community are his own. His obligation to protect Sonny blinds him to his own downfall and, while his narration consistently implies that Sonny is doomed to become like their uncle, it is far more likely that the older brother is becoming like their father or that his denial will cause him to lose Sonny, rather than save him, just as he lost his daughter. On the surface, he resembles his father simply in that his love and fear for Sonny leads him to misunderstand and seek to restrain Sonny (130). Additionally, he disapproves of jazz players and believes that the life of a musician is not good enough for Sonny (134). However, his tendency to associate jazz with bad outcomes (127) and his fear that Sonny will “die…trying not to suffer” (143) reveal a more serious similarity to their father’s story, hindering his recognition of Sonny’s ability to help him.

The image of the uncle’s “busted guitar” haunts the brother just as much as it haunted the father. Until his dying day, the father was tormented by the uncle’s murder. Because he did not trust white men (133), he feared for Sonny and tried to control him (130). Likewise, the brother fears that Sonny’s love for jazz will cause history to repeat itself and render the brother’s suffering undeniably real. Ironically, the brother’s fear that his parents’ stories will become his own–because of Sonny–directly causes suffering. Like their father, he projects his fears onto Sonny. Sonny will not die in the effort to avoid suffering as the brother fears he will–rather, that is exactly what the brother is in danger of doing. In his own words, the brother is “dying to hear [Sonny] tell [him] he [is] safe”. In the same way, their father was always searching for safety and security, “but he died before he found it” (130). The brother’s similarity to the father indicates that, rather than Sonny being in danger of becoming like their uncle, the brother is in danger of wasting his life like their father if he continues to be governed by fear.

The brother unknowingly shares similarities with Sonny as well, which renders his confidence in his ability to help Sonny particularly ironic. His narration consistently suggests that Sonny is the one fleeing from suffering, but this conceals the brother’s tendency to do the same and misrepresents Sonny’s objective. Each brother harms himself to some degree through escapism. Sonny falls prey to drug abuse, and the brother practices denial. Both outlets alter reality and impede their quality of life. However, the brothers differ strongly in their ability to fix the problem. The solution lies in jazz, which Sonny plays “for his life” (138), whereas the brother is frightened by it (134). His decision to make Sonny stay in Harlem–when Sonny wanted to leave to escape drugs (144)–symbolizes his inability to know what to flee from. He assumes he has escaped because he is a school teacher–he even thinks that Sonny has escaped by eventually leaving Harlem (129)–but he fails to understand that fleeing only brings suffering closer. Sonny’s view of education being useless compounds the brother’s error (136). Just as algebra fails to help the brother’s students (123), the brother fails to solve Sonny’s problems, for he inaccurately perceives reality.

The brother’s fear of history repeating itself is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, symbolized by his rejection of jazz, which separates him from the Black community. Just as he has always feared that his parents’ stories will become his own, his rejection of jazz is tantamount to rejecting the stories of his community. Jazz is a “communal experience”, as Robert P. McParland says (131)–“a means of collective intentionality” (132). By playing jazz, Sonny is telling a story, and it is a story of the suffering he shares with others. This is exactly what the brother has always feared–telling his own story. The “old folks” are no longer sitting around, talking of bygone days (Baldwin 131). Instead, Sonny, a member of his own generation, is the story-teller, and this close proximity in age, “as a bridge” (128), makes the stories of suffering to be the brother’s also. In this way, whilst the brother’s experience of losing his daughter makes Sonny’s suffering real (139), Sonny’s suffering also makes the brother’s suffering real because Sonny possesses the means to express it for both of them. Telling their stories is key to making suffering bearable.

Sonny possesses the means to heal because he recognizes that acceptance of suffering is crucial to surviving. He knows that “trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped” (127) and he knows that telling one’s story and the stories of others is crucial to bearing hardship. Subsequently, he is not what his brother says he is–he is not one of the “‘good-time people’” (134), he does not want to die (126), and he is not going to “die…trying not to suffer” (143). Sonny’s mindset is best summarized by his brother’s dislike of the books he used to read about India. They gave accounts of people braving bad weather and “walking barefoot through hot coals” in pursuit of wisdom. But the brother “used to say that it sounded…as though they were getting away from wisdom as fast as they could” (128). As a child, Sonny admired people who went through great difficulties to grow in strength and endurance. Whilst his older brother fostered determination to prevent suffering, Sonny began to develop the means to bear it.

Just as the brothers’ suffering stems from the shared experience of their community, the cure lies in joining themselves to the community rather than separating themselves from it. Sonny’s decision to do so through jazz saves him from drugs and his reclusive nature. As McParland writes, the “communal experience” of jazz is, for Sonny, a way to escape “from the isolation within the self alone” (131). Likewise, the older brother’s distance from Sonny and the community reveals his own isolation, a consequence of denying his association with them through suffering. Acknowledging his suffering not only enables him to bear it but establishes a stronger tie between himself and others, enabling him to identify with others. So then, the brother discovers that grief, rather than fear, is instrumental in his relationship with Sonny and his community. For grief creates a connection where fear builds a wall. By identifying with his community through jazz, the brother can acknowledge both Sonny’s suffering and his own. Through Sonny’s blues, he can finally bear the telling of his own story, and he will tell it without fear–“at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death…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” (Baldwin 147).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues”.

McParland, Robert P. “To the Deep Water: James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’”. Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 23, no. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 131-140. EBSCOhost,,cpid&custid=ns149246&db=a9h&AN=26673991&site=ehost-live. Accessed 7 May 2021.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community.” MELUS, vol. 10, no. 2, 1983, pp. 27–31. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2021.



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