Study Guide

Sonny's Blues Family

By James Baldwin


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.