‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin

‘Sonny’s Blues’ reminds me of the capacity of short fiction to feel just as expansive as a novel. It tells the story of two estranged brothers, whose paths diverge after the death of their parents. While the narrator settles into family life in Harlem as a schoolteacher, the younger brother Sonny seeks a bohemian existence as a jazz musician in the Village until he is arrested for using and selling heroin. When Sonny is released from prison, they reconnect, but it’s only when the narrator agrees to watch Sonny perform that he sees his brother for who he really is for the first time. To me, the final scene of this story is one of the most moving testaments of the power of music—and art more broadly—to express what feels inexpressible, bridge seemingly impossible gulfs in understanding, and provide both an outlet and solace for our suffering.

First published in the Partisan Review, 1957, and widely collected, including in Going to Meet The Man, Dial Press, 1965, which was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1991. The story was also published as a Penguin 60 in 1995

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