He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin. (3)
This is the first we really hear of Sonny or his drug use, and the statement is shockingly direct. There is no sugarcoating the presence of drugs in this story.
Yet it had happened and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could. (4)
The narrator sort of senses the futility of trying to teach high school math to a group of kids who might never get out of Harlem. Even he can acknowledge that there might be something more immediately gratifying in drugs.
I'm surprised at Sonny, though . . . I thought Sonny was a smart boy, I thought he was too smart to get hung. (21)
Sonny's friend says this to the narrator at the beginning of the story. It's an interesting statement coming from a drug user. Being smart or not has nothing to do with becoming an addict, but this statement makes it sound like anyone with enough intelligence can take drugs and will themselves to not get addicted.
You mean – they'll let him out. And then he'll just start working his way back in again. You mean he'll never kick the habit. Is that what you mean? (36)
The narrator wrestles with the idea that Sonny may never kick his drug addiction. If Sonny never gets off drugs, the narrator will never get his brother back.
Sometime I think I'm going to flip and never get outside and sometime I think I'll come straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I'd rather blow my brains out than go through this again. (51)
Drug addiction is a vicious monster. Sonny would rather die than have to face being in prison and getting himself off drugs again. This is where he starts to let us know how truly horrible things have been for him.
"When she was singing before," said Sonny, abruptly, "her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes – when it's in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time." (195)
Sonny is trying so hard to explain to the narrator what it feels like to be high on heroin. It makes sense that he would compare shooting up to music, the language he knows best.
It makes you feel – in control. Sometimes you've got to have that feeling. (195)
Having to grow up in an environment in which he has no control over anything (his future, where he'll live, what he'll do for a living) is a pretty debilitating feeling for Sonny. By making the decision to do drugs, he gains a momentary sense that he's controlling his own destiny.
"It's not so much to play. It's to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level." He frowned and smiled: "In order to keep from shaking to pieces." (201)
Sonny doesn't want his brother to think that being a jazz musician is what causes him to turn to drugs. He's trying to make him see that at some point drugs help him just get through the day, to survive another 24 hours.
Some guys, you can tell from the way they play, they on something all the time. And you can see that, well, it makes something real for them. (203)
Sonny is trying to make it clear that different people do drugs for different reasons. For some of the musicians he knows, drugs are a way to stake a place in the world, to keep them rooted in reality. It's almost as though their suffering is so great that the world doesn't seem real. They have to do drugs to feel like they're a part of something that actually exists.
I couldn't tell you when Mama died – but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that's what I was running from – really. (218)
Sonny wants so badly to get away from his addiction that he's willing to leave his family behind. That tells us how truly bad things were for him, but it also shows us how misguided he was in thinking he could just run away from drugs. In the end, he ends up back at the very place he tried so hard to escape.
These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. (5)
Suffering comes in many forms. The boys in Harlem know that they have little chance of ever "making something" of themselves. They suffer from the limits that their circumstances have constrained them with.
It was not the joyous laughter which – God knows why – one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this, also lay the authority of their curses. (6)
Laughter as an expression of suffering, you might ask? Absolutely. This is the angry laughter of young men who are already hardened against the world.
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. . . . 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. (12)
People don't always outwardly express their anguish. The narrator's suffering is immense (it threatens to overpower him here), but he can't just fall apart. Perhaps his suffering is made even greater because this great, big block of ice just stays where it is. He can't get it out of his system.
When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore. (26)
Bear with us on this one, but this is almost a hopeful image of suffering. Underneath this woman's beaten face the narrator can still see a glimmer of the innocent child she once was. Even her suffering hasn't completely covered that up.
"Tell me," I said at last, "why does he want to die? He must want to die, he's killing himself, why does he want to die?" (38)
The narrator is making a desperate plea with this unanswerable question. He can't imagine anyone doing what Sonny has done to himself unless he no longer has the will to live. He just wants to know "why?" His suffering is as great as Sonny's here.
All at once something inside gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn't hate him any more. I felt that in another moment I'd start crying like a child. (42)
The narrator is referring to Sonny's old friend, who is also an addict. His suffering turns to compassion here. He no longer hates this man who reminds him of his addict brother. Instead, he can barely contain the grief he feels for him and Sonny. He wants so badly to just let it out, but he won't.
You don't know how much I needed to hear from you. I wanted to write you many a time but I dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn't write. But now I feel like a man who's been trying to climb out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside. (49)
Sonny suffers on multiple levels. He suffers from his drug addiction and from being stuck in jail. But he also suffers from the knowledge that he's hurt his family and that, because of this, he didn't dare reach out to them even when he needed to the most.
The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It's what they've come from. It's what they endure. The child knows they won't talk any more because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him. (82)
Here we see how suffering can pass down from one generation to the next. The parents want to protect the children for as long as they can, but they know that suffering will be an inevitable part of their lives. But for now, the children can remain blissfully ignorant of what's looming ahead.
I said: "But there's no way not to suffer – is there, Sonny?" (206)
The narrator is resigned to suffering. He's just accepted it as part of the human condition.
"I believe not," he said and smiled, "but that's never stopped anyone from trying." He looked at me. "Has it?" (207)
In some ways, Sonny may agree with the narrator that there is no way around suffering. But he doesn't just passively accept this; he'll keep doing whatever he can to stave it off, even if he knows deep down that this might be futile.
I'm glad Mama and Daddy are dead and can't see what's happened to their son. (50)
Sometimes it's better not to have family around than to have to live with the guilt of hurting or disappointing them. This guilt is one thing Sonny couldn't handle.
I was remembering, and it made it hard to catch my breath, that I had been there when he was born; and I had heard the first words he had ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight to me. I caught him just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world. (57)
The bonds between Sonny and his brother are intense. In many ways, the narrator is like another parent to Sonny. Because he's family, he's there to catch Sonny when he stumbles (just like he did when they were kids).
He and Sonny hadn't ever got on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father's eye. It was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always fighting for him. (79)
Family relationships can be complicated, especially between parents and their kids. Can a parent love his child so much that it's paralyzing? Sonny's father loves him so deeply that he's scared for him, and this fear taints their entire relationship.
"You got to hold on to your brother," she said, "and don't let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening and no matter how evil you gets with him." (104)
The narrator's mother makes him promise to take care of Sonny and tells us something about the unconditional love of family. She doesn't care how angry the narrator gets with his brother (and she knows he will); all she wants is for him to remember to always keep Sonny within reach.
I'd never played the role of 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. (114)
After their parents pass away, the narrator finds himself having to act like a big brother, which scares him. Even though Sonny is his family, he doesn't understand him and doesn't really know how to be the big brother he should be. Just because he's older doesn't mean he knows what he's doing.
He came by the house from time to time, but we fought almost every time we met. (173)
Sonny and the narrator love each other, but they just can't get past the huge differences in their lives, their choices, and their ideas about right and wrong. We can love our family but not always want to be around them, right?
[…] and he treated these other people as though they were his family and I weren't. So I got mad and then he got mad, and then I told him that he might just as well be dead as live the way he was living. (174)
In some ways Sonny creates an alternate family for himself, made up of people who understand his music and his way of life. While this might be good for him, it devastates the narrator. For him, family is blood, but for Sonny family is where you find it.
Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound. (176)
This happens when Isabel dreams about Grace, the daughter who dies of polio. Isabel's love for her child is so great that her absence actually feels like a physical injury.
Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. (235)
The narrator says this when he's watching Sonny play piano at the club. Sonny has found his way back to his musical family, and he's become a part of this family unit again. He just needed to remember what it felt like.
He had made it his: that long line of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. . . . I saw my mother's face again . . . I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. (238)
There is a sense of lineage that emerges from Sonny's music. His playing makes the narrator understand the connections passed down from generation to generation, familial ties that are eternally bound.
But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. (72)
Home isn't always the comforting place we'd like it to be. Sometimes it feels claustrophobic, like a prison.
Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny's face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was the part of ourselves which had been left behind. (72)
Is it ever really possible to leave "home" behind? Although he and Sonny are now grown men, the narrator realizes that they're each trying to find the piece of themselves that will always remain "home," no matter where they go or how old they get.
And I'd known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had on the day I'd first heard about Sonny's trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life. (73)
The familiarity of home can quickly turn to a sense of danger and destruction. This "home" is precisely what Sonny tries to escape with drugs, and even though it's a place he and the narrator know well, there seems to be an unknown danger lurking around every corner.
We live in a housing project. It hasn't been up long. A few days after it was up it seemed uninhabitably new, now, of course, it's already run down. (76)
This is "home" in the literal sense, where the narrator and his family live. When it was new, it didn't feel comfortable to live in – perhaps it was too spotless and perfect. But that newness didn't last long, and now it already feels run-down. There is no happy medium here.
The beat-looking grass lying around isn't enough to make their lives green, the hedges will never hold out the streets, and they know it. (76)
The people who live in the narrator's Harlem neighborhood can't even find refuge within their own homes. They can try to spruce them up, try to pretend they're in a comfortable, safe place, but there's no getting around the bleakness of the outside world.
"Safe!" my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for children. "Safe, hell! Ain't no place safe for kids, nor nobody." (78)
What a completely devastating thing to hear as a kid! Not even the one place where children should feel safe and protected can offer that to them. The idea of "home" as we might traditionally think of it doesn't exist for these kids.
He hopes that the hand which stokes his forehead will never stop – will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won't be sitting around the living room, talking about where they've come from, and what they've seen, and what's happened to them and their kinfolk. (81)
This is an example of "home" more as a state of being than a physical place. The scene of the child lying in his mother's lap, getting his head rubbed and listening to the adults talk, is almost magical. It's more the act than the place that makes this "home."
When I came back, nothing had changed, I hadn't changed, I was just – older. (218)
"Home" doesn't change for Sonny after he grows up. It's almost like it's been waiting for him, like a time capsule, while he's grown and changed.
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. (229)
The nightclub is truly Sonny's "home" now. He is comfortable here, in his element. He has created a home for himself outside of the place where he sleeps and eats. He's accepted and admired here, and that's what makes this "home" for him.
And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky. (238)
A feeling of being "home" can be momentary and fleeting, especially when the outside world is so bleak. The narrator senses that the feeling of being "at home" can only last so long before you have to go back and confront the real world.