Commentary by Karen Bernardo
James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is told from the viewpoint of the title character’s brother, a schoolteacher, who lives a much different life than Sonny himself. As the story opens, the unnamed teacher has just learned that his younger brother has been arrested for possession and sale of heroin: “It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn’t doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had said or done.”
What is remarkable about that passage is the way Baldwin is able to describe a feeling we have all had when we’ve been extremely upset for a protracted period of time. The “ice,” of course, is nature’s attempts to numb the terrible shock and pain of learning about Sonny’s arrest, and the fear that the narrator feels for his brother’s future. The feeling of the ice melting and trickling through his veins is similar to the sensation of goosebumps, or having a chill run up one’s spine. The fact that the narrator has to continue to teach his classes despite being in the most intense emotional anguish intensifies the symptoms he experiences internally.
Ice is seldom mentioned in the remainder of the story; but it is still there, if only in its absence. The narrator tells us that after he finishes teaching his classes for that day, “my clothes were wet —I may have looked as though I’d been sitting in a steam bath, all afternoon.” Just as all his distress about Sonny is locked inside him (in the form of “ice”) so that he can continue to stand in front of the class and teach, his “warmth” is all on the outside, and manifests itself in the form of sweat. Because he cannot deal with Sonny’s pain—because he doesn’t want pain like that to become a part of his life—the narrator does not write to Sonny in prison until he has experienced a loss of his own. The narrator’s little girl dies of polio, and at that point he reaches out to the only person who might be able to understand that kind of anguish—Sonny.
When he gets Sonny back home, he momentarily feels “that icy dread again” as he watches his brother for signs of drug addiction, hating himself for being so suspicious but unable to prevent it. The narrator recaps the story of Sonny’s life—how their parents had died when Sonny was a teenager, and how Sonny decided to become a jazz pianist, practicing at the piano at the narrator’s inlaws’ house as he were “playing for his life” —which he was.
Baldwin implies that Sonny got addicted to heroin because there was so much rage and pain and misery inside him that he couldn’t express it; the only time it was quenched at all was when he played the piano, and yet he still had not perfected his skills enough to allow the music to flow out of his soul through his fingers in a way that would heal him inside. Getting high was easier. When Sonny talks about the pain inside him, he brings up the metaphor of cold again: “It’s terrible sometimes, inside…that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s really not a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out -- that storm inside. You can’t talk 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…. Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat.”
The difference between Sonny and the narrator is that the narrator is terrified of this kind of naked emotion. When he feels it, it threatens to overwhelm him, and he freezes it into ice inside. This way it doesn’t show on the outside (except, perhaps, as sweat) and he is able to remain “cool.” Sonny, on the other hand, feels compelled to confront this emotion one way or another—through drugs or through music, whatever works—and work the pain out.
The narrator finally realizes this when he goes with Sonny to a jazz club where Sonny will play. The narrator has never heard his brother perform before, and has never met any of his brother’s jazz friends; he is astonished at the kind of welcome he receives. “It turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone; some were musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangers-on, and some were there to hear Sonny play. I was introduced to all of them and they were all very polite to me. Yet it was clear that, for them, I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.” Blood, it should be noted—not ice.
From here on, three complementary images counter the symbolic ice that began the story—that of light, liquidity, and heat. Baldwin notes that “The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and, watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; without thinking, they would perish in flame.” Sonny, however, belongs in the circle of light because he has endured his ordeal by fire and survived; his music will testify to his right to be there.
The narrator then tells how Creole, the bass player, coaxes a risky performance out of Sonny: “he wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there, and he knew.” In order to heal and continue healing, Sonny had to musically put his whole soul on the line.
Finally, “they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back…[and] began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.”
At the end of the performance Sonny is soaking wet, just as his brother had been soaking wet at the end of his day at school; but the narrator was wet with the effort of keeping his emotions in check, and now Sonny is wet with the grace of having expressed what he needed to say. The ice has melted. Ice in this story function as a metaphor for the damming of the soul; and we are false to ourselves when we freeze ourselves that way, and false to those we love.
These stories can be found in Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man, which is available from Amazon here.
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