Empathy as Craft: James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”
By Gerry Stanek •
James Baldwin finds a unique way to interiority in “Sonny’s Blues,” which was first published in 1957. I say unique, because I’m not sure there’s another story like this; a character’s thoughts and perceptions are normally voiced from that particular character’s point of view. But because Baldwin’s narrator is seeing his brother in a new light, because Baldwin understands the complexities of jazz, and, I believe, because the narrator learns to love his brother in this moment, he is able to look deeply at what Sonny is feeling and thinking, able to get to the internal workings of another soul on the page. Baldwin relies on empathy in “Sonny’s Blues” and brandishes it as a tool, a unique craft element used to construct an effective story.
Late in the story, as the brothers arrive at the nightclub where Sonny will play, Baldwin creates a mood by talking in generalities about music—these sentences aren’t about Sonny, and yet they tell us something about him: “The man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason.” This is Sonny’s struggle and dilemma, to find order in that void. Everything we’ve learned about Sonny to this point adds to the depth of this search. And the narrator sees Sonny’s struggle on stage: “His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it.”
The beauty and depth of emotion required for jazz and blues are analogous to Sonny’s life in these paragraphs, and the narrator sees this for the first time—he hadn’t bothered to venture into Sonny’s world before. He notes the connection—the humanity, really—that flows back and forth between the musicians on the stage. He sees that Creole, his brother’s friend and bandleader, shares an understanding with Sonny that their journey, in life or music, is the same: “[Creole] 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.” Sonny’s life has been troubled, and the narrator senses that, for Sonny, joy and beauty must necessarily be found through struggle.
Baldwin writes, “Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and the instrument…While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try: to try and make it do everything.” The narrator sees Sonny’s struggles through this lens now and, for the first time, understands his brother. “He wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck.”
What tool does Baldwin use here, if not empathy? In these moments, the narrator finds empathy and sees his brother’s struggles with drug addiction for what they really are: the pain of figuring out life on life’s terms. He steps into his brother’s shoes for the first time and realizes what’s going on inside his brother’s head. Sonny’s struggle with art tells his brother everything he needs to know, and Baldwin manages to get it on the page in aching detail. “And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.”
When Sonny finally finds his place within the music, he is completely alive and in control, and his brother cannot fail to see and understand what’s happening: “Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it.” Baldwin’s narrator understands, at this moment, that his brother couldn’t have been anyone else, couldn’t have existed without the struggles, that those struggles must be acknowledged and even loved. Baldwin couldn’t have written these passages without a deep understanding of blues and jazz, without the same depth of understanding the musicians have—that is, their lives necessarily shape the music, shape their interiors, dictate every result, on or off the stage; all of those results, good or bad, must be savored.
“He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” Life itself is the only thing that can shape the music, and Sonny gains a worth that his brother couldn’t have perceived before. “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life…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. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”
For me, “Sonny’s Blues” is all about perception. Sonny’s brother, Baldwin’s narrator, was eager to put his troubled brother into a box and hide him away at the beginning of the story. But the opportunity to perceive him in a different way—as he creates music—is an opportunity to see the man within. We read all about Sonny’s internal life through his brother’s perceptions. I hadn’t considered empathy as a way to the humanity of a character, but Baldwin does it brilliantly, successfully, with a marked depth, so that we know Sonny intimately.
GERRY STANEK has an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and teaches writing at North Carolina A&T. His short story collection, They Came Here Looking for Light: The Plattsville Stories, was published by Bituminous Press in 2019.