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.