The narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” provides insight not only into Sonny and their life together but also into their environment. Although the story invokes Sonny in its title, it is through the narrator’s eyes that Sonny and Harlem are revealed. Compared to most of the men in his community, the narrator has succeeded: he has a wife, two children, and a good job as a teacher. However, he is constantly aware of Harlem’s darker, more dangerous side. He notes the open drug dealing that happens in the playgrounds near the housing projects, the disappearance of old homes, and, of course, his brother’s ongoing battle with the world. Far from worrying solely about his family’s difficulties, he frames Sonny’s struggles within a larger context, situating him within the poverty, crime, and drug abuse that plague the entire community.
Though the narrator is fully conscious of his community’s dark side, he tries his best to keep those problems at arm’s length, refusing to let any tragedy affect him too much emotionally. Unlike Sonny, the narrator has a difficult time expressing his ideas and emotions, and only when his young daughter dies does he open up and write to his brother. The narrator believes that he has been called upon to watch over Sonny, but this knowledge doesn’t lessen the burden he feels. He is constantly torn by his emotions, which shift quickly from love to hate, concern to doubt. As much as he cares for Sonny, he seems to be unable to fully accept that his brother has the capacity for change.
From a young age, Sonny is haunted by the burden of being poor, black, and trapped within the confines of his community. As a young African American male born in Harlem, he is aware of the limits and obstacles he faces. He struggles to defy the stereotypes by moving away from Harlem and beginning a career as a musician. Unlike his brother, Sonny wants and needs an escape from Harlem and the traditional social order. Instead of being free, however, Sonny winds up being confined in prison—far from feeling trapped in his community, he is now literally captive. Even after Sonny is released from prison, the narrator describes him as a caged animal that is trying to break free from the effects that prison has had on him and from the drug addiction that led to his incarceration.
Sonny’s one saving grace is his music, through which he can express all of his deep-seated longing and frustration. Sonny’s music offers him a chance at redemption, but at the same time it also threatens to destroy him. To create music, Sonny has to bear the suffering and tragedies of his life and all the lives around him. He translates that suffering into an artistic expression that ultimately, even if only temporarily, redeems his audience. There is something heroic, almost Christlike, to the way Sonny offers himself up to his music. He knows that playing music may destroy him by leading him back into a life of drugs, but he also knows that it’s a burden that he has to bear.
The mother in “Sonny’s Blues” is an almost saintlike figure who guards and protects her children and husband from the darkness of the world, and Baldwin’s biblical imagery and undertones come through clearly in her character. She shepherds her husband through the overwhelming grief that follows his brother’s death, thereby living up to the biblical challenge to be “your brother’s keeper.” She has done more than just live a decent life: she helped bear her husband’s tragedy as her own. Just as Jesus is often depicted as a shepherd, so too is the narrator’s mother, whose presence makes her husband’s life manageable. Her life story is a direct challenge to the narrator, who, unlike his mother, initially fails to care for his brother as he should.
In addition to her compassion, the mother also has a prophetic role to play in the narrative. She can see her own impending death and the dangers her youngest son will face. As a mother, she has protected her family, but now that she knows she is going to die, she knows she will no longer be able to guide and protect her family as she once did. Her foreshadowing of her death signals a shift in the narrator’s relationship with his brother. It makes him the new protector of Sonny against the greater darkness of the world that has always threatened to invade their lives.