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Sonny's Blues

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"Sonny’s Blues" (1957) is a short story by James Baldwin. It later appeared in the 1965 short story collection, Going to Meet the Man.

Plot summary

The narrator reads about his brother's being caught in heroin-peddling action in the newspaper. He goes through his day's work as a teacher, and is met by a friend of his brother's, who says they will eventually release him but he will be alone. There is then a letter from his brother, written in prison. Later, his brother comes to dinner at his place.

The narrator then thinks back to his childhood in Harlem. His mother had told him to watch over his brother, as the latter shared the same sense of 'privacy' as his father, which meant that they couldn't make the grade unaided. She recounts the way his father's brother was killed by whites running over him with their car, and how she had deemed it taboo for the children.

Later, the narrator goes back to New York for his mother's funeral, and attempts to ask his brother what he wants to do with his life. He tells him he wants to become a jazz musician: a piano player. A little later, it is found out that he has been skipping school and playing jazz instead.

Later, the narrator is taken to a jazz joint where Sonny is performing. Before they go, Sonny tells him that he has taken heroin in the past to help him "deal" with the hardships of life. He uses the experience of addiction to dig from his soul and create his art. Evidently, Sonny's performance holds the audience captive. His music evokes the narrator's epiphany that music can free them (blacks) from racial discrimination as seen in Harlem in the 1960s.