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Summary of "Sonny's Blues"

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How does Baldwin's real-life experience connect to his short story, "Sonny's Blues"? The writer was a poor boy growing up. He was also a Negro, so things were bad for him and his family in white America. He probably felt sad every day of his childhood so he turned to books for entertainment and maybe escape. When he started reading, he found that he liked it and wanted to create stories for other people to enjoy, but he was a poor Negro boy who could not expect help from the whites, so he taught himself to write. That is similar to Sonny, who taught himself to play the piano. In the final scene, Sonny performs some improvisational jazz

What is improvisational music? What do we learn about Sonny through his performance?

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Sonny had faced many trials throughout the story including drug abuse, his decision to join the navy, and trying to start a career in music. His older brother was caring to the best of his ability, though many times he just didn’t know how to react with some of Sonny’s words and actions. They do their best to see each other’s points of view and sometimes it works better than others. In the beginning of the story, the narrator led the reader to believe something terrible had happened. At first, nobody had a clue as to what had happened or to whom, but were given an insight on what the narrator was feeling in regards to this. He described it as a great block of ice that had settled in his stomach, melted, and sent ice water through his veins. This became a recurring feeling for him. Soon, we learn that Sonny is his younger brother who is struggling with heroin addiction. There was a boy that met the narrator as he was leaving work, ready to inform him about Sonny’s state. Sonny’s brother had already known because of an article in a newspaper, but the two stayed chatting and the boy had answered a lot of the brother’s questions. Sonny and his brother had written letters to each other until Sonny made it back to New York after rehab. His brother described him as looking older and thinner than the Sonny he once knew. Sonny had lived with his brother and his family for a short time until there was a falling out. One day, Sonny’s brother had asked him what he planned on doing in his future. Sonny replied with a simple I’m going to be a musician. His brother was not sure how to respond so he asked a few more questions

Questions like: You mean, you want to be a drummer? and What kind of musician do you want to be? He ended up working it out of Sonny. Sonny told him we wanted to play jazz music with what their daddy had called good-time people. Sonny had made it clear that he was serious about a career in music, whether or not his brother was going to accept his decision. His brother had said it was time for get serious about his future and what he was going to do for a living. Sonny had finally said he had wanted to join the Army or the Navy, this way, he could get out of Harlem and still have the G.I. bill waiting for him when he came out. Soon after, Sonny’s brother convinced him to start going back to school. Sonny agreed and also started playing the piano. Day and night, in between meals. He became better each day and even bought records that allowed him to practice improvisation with the music. Come to find out, Sonny had stopped going to school all together. Every letter that had come, Sonny had gotten rid of.

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Alienation continues to surface as one of Sonny’s friends comes to the school compound to tell the narrator about his brother’s imprisonment. From the conversation that ensues, it is evident that the narrator hates Sonny’s friend

For instance, although the boy lives in the narrator’s neighborhood, he never associates with him. He describes him as ‘cunning boy’, and regrets why he always gave the ‘cunning boy’ fifty cents during his borrowing escapades. However, the boy seems friendly and tells him about Sonny but the narrator already knows. He offers the boy a cigarette hence proves that despite condemning the drug addicts he is also a smoker. Sonny’s friend asks the narrator why the police did not get him, which he sarcastically answers, “I wasn’t there. I stay away from people” (Baldwin 553). Furthermore, the boy asks the narrator what is his next step about his brother’s condition; but he rudely says nothing; if anything the narrator has not seen Sonny for more than a year. The narrator does not even know his brother’s residence before imprisonment. Two forms of alienation come out at this point; first, the narrator is alienated from himself; he does not understand himself. He smokes yet he condemns addicts as if there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ addicts. Secondly, he confesses that he ‘stays away from people’ and this remark is enough to suffice hoe deep the narrator is alienated from his surroundings; he doe not even know Sonny’s friend by name yet they live in the same neighborhood. Therefore as expected, he does not plan to visit his brother in prison.

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In essence, the mother of the narrator dies later on

The narrator married Isabel and sent Sonny to live with the Isabel`s parents until he was done with school. Sonny had a desire to become a musician. He does not go to school, and one day, he decides to join the navy. The next time the brothers saw each other was when the war had ended. In the present, Sonny has lived with his brother for weeks, and they connect after Sonny invite his brother to hear him sing. The two go to a night club where Sonny is loved and plays with the band. The narrator is in tears during the song thinking about suffering. The band takes a pause, and the narrator buys a drink for the bartender. Sonny looks at his brother, and the band resumes playing.

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Baldwin, James. Going to Meet the Man. United States: Dial press, 1965.

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