Shawn NateraDon Stanley
6 May 2018
Assignment 2: Critical Essay
In James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, the unnamed narrator states, “He became real to me again” (17). Whom is the narrator referring to, and who is responsible for the other becoming unreal? As seven years of age difference lead to drastically different life choices, the relationship between the narrator and his brother, Sonny, suffers and eventually disappears. The narrator bore more responsibility for the conflict with his brother because of his own personal fears, criticism, and judgements.
Both brothers grew up in the tough streets of Harlem. The narrator feared the drugs, violence, and despair in his surroundings, but fought them to become a math teacher and married, with children. With his normal life, he believed that he had managed to keep the negativity at bay, but it, and his fears, never left. They were always there, for him, and for his brother.
The narrator created a bubble, shunning the darkness of Harlem. When his brother was arrested for drugs, he realized that ignoring problems did not eliminate them. The narrator stated, “I couldn’t find any room for it inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know” (17). His own fears and inability to accept his environment had broken the promise he made to his mother about not letting anything happen to Sonny.
The two brothers had contrasting thoughts about what Sonny should do with his life. Much to the narrator’s chagrin, Sonny’s dream was to become a jazz musician. The narrator thought, “I’d never played the role of the older brother quite so seriously before, had scarcely ever, in fact, asked Sonny a damn thing. I sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle, didn’t understand” (30). This realization did not prevent the narrator from beginning a critical tirade against Sonny, his music, his choice to smoke at the same age the narrator had begun, and his wish to join the army or navy. He became angry instead of expressing his fear and told his brother, “You must be crazy. You goddamn fool, what the hell do you want to go and join the army for?” (33). Instead of sharing his true thoughts with Sonny, he chose to criticize and demean him, disrespecting his dreams and wish to escape Harlem.
The narrator was so disapproving of Sonny’s dreams and decisions in life that he passed judgement instead of respecting Sonny’s need to be heard, creating a tremendous hurdle in the development of a true relationship. The narrator continued to stereotype jazz musicians as “good-time people” (31) and considered them unmotivated drug addicts simply “beneath” (67) his brother Sonny. Such judgement and lack of empathy forced the brothers apart.
The narrator hurt Sonny deeply by not supporting his dreams. “He (Sonny) looked more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt” (67). Without his brother’s support of his passion, Sonny was devastated and completely withdrew. “It was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own: and there wasn’t any way to reach him” (70).
Despite Sonny’s all-telling statement, “I hear you, but you never hear anything I say” (69), the narrator continued. He believed he knew what was best for his brother. He did not understand his brother’s need for music, so he distanced himself. “I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he lived” (71). His preconceived judgement of Sonny caused fights each time they met. He blindingly did not realize that Sonny needed music to survive and that he was “playing for his life” (70).
Sonny’s troubles burst the narrator’s bubble, but the loss of his daughter forced the narrator out to realize, “My trouble made his (Sonny’s) real” (37). The narrator had abandoned his brother by criticizing and judging him in response to his own fears and preconceptions. His actions, or lack thereof, cemented the conflict between them. Ignoring did not erase.