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The biblical foundation of James Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues”. | James Baldwin

SONNY’S Blues”. Is James Baldwin’s most anthologized

and most critically discussed short story. Most critical analyses of

“Sonny’s Blues”. Have centered on the story’s unnamed

narrator’s identity issues (Bieganowski, Reid, Murray) and

Baldwin’s use of blues / jazz music within the story (Jones,

Sherard, Byerman, Goldman). Surprisingly, few critical discussions of

“Sonny’s Blues”. Have focused on the story’s

religious themes. Robert Reid, in an article devoted mainly to

Baldwin’s narrator’s identity concerns, compares the narrator to the biblical Ishmael and Sonny to Isaac (444-45). Jim Sanderson

discusses the role of grace in the story. Marlene Mosher, in a very

short essay, explicates the biblical allusion in the story’s final

image–the “cup of trembling”. Glowing and shaking above

Sonny’s head as he plays the piano (Baldwin, “Sonny’s

Blues”. 141). But no critical analysis of “Sonny’s

Blues”. Has identified the two main biblical texts that form the

foundation of Baldwin’s story: the Cain and Abel story from the

Book of Genesis and the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s


That Baldwin would use Bible stories as a foundation for his

fiction shouldn't be surprising. Like so many Christian African

Americans, Baldwin knew the Bible intimately and once claimed, “I

was born in the church”. (“Notes”. 14). Indeed, the King

James Bible became his signal literary text during his Harlem childhood.

In his biography of Baldwin, James Campbell states that Baldwin’s

“moral world”. Was “fortified and sanctioned by

generations of deep believers”. That “the vocabulary and

cadence of the King James Bible and the rhetoric of the pulpit were at

the heart of his literary style”. (4). According to Campbell,

Baldwin “knew the Bible so well that he colored his phrases with

Old Testament rhetoric and poetry, with full conviction”. (10), and

Baldwin’s “personal theology”. Was drawn from the Bible

(11). Baldwin grew up listening to sermons in the storefront churches of

Harlem, reading the Bible. Living in fear of the wrath of his

religiously puritanical stepfather, David Baldwin, a self-ordained


At the age of fourteen, Baldwin underwent a dramatic religious

conversion in a Harlem church, an event described in detail in “The

Fire Next Time”. Used in his first novel, Go Tell It on the

Mountain. As he explains in “The Fire Next Time,”. Baldwin

escaped the hazards of the Harlem streets by fleeing to the safety of

the church (20). Soon after his conversion, he began preaching regularly

in Harlem’s churches as a Junior Minister. By the age of seventeen,

however, Baldwin would become disillusioned with religion and leave the

church, as the Bible gave way to the novels of Feodor Dostoevsky. But

Campbell is correct when he states that “although he [Baldwin] left

the church, the church never left him”. (4). Indeed, religious and

biblical themes and motifs are at the center of Baldwin’s best

literary efforts, including “Sonny’s Blues.”

Considering Baldwin’s personal experiences in the Christian

church–which are discussed in the standard biographies of Baldwin and

generally noted in Baldwin criticism–and the vital role that religion

has played in African American letters, it seems puzzling that critics

haven't discussed the biblical foundation of a key Baldwin text such as

“Sonny’s Blues.”. African American writers since Phillis

Wheatley have been incorporating biblical themes and references into

their literary texts. By using the Bible to shape his literary works,

Baldwin was following a long tradition that includes. Example, David

Walker, Frederick Douglass, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker. Martin

Luther King, Jr. In the case of Baldwin, however, perhaps most critics

prefer to view him as a civil rights writer rather than as a Christian

writer with his Bible close at hand. Certainly, Baldwin played a

spokesman’s role during the American civil rights movement of the

1950s and 60s. Much of his most poignant writing is devoted to the

racial issues of his time. Furthermore, the mature Baldwin, in

interviews and in his writings, often attempted to distance himself from

his childhood religious zeal. In both Go Tell It on the Mountain and

“The Fire Next Time,”. Baldwin sharply criticizes the religious

fanaticism of his father David Baldwin (who served as the model for

Gabriel Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain). And in “The Fire

Next Time,”. Baldwin details the religious skepticism that overcame

him during his later teenage years and prompted his departure from the

Christian church:

[T]he blood of the Lamb hadn't cleansed me in any way whatever.

I was just as black as I'd been the day that I was born.

Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the

strength I'd not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to

throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and

organize. Example, a rent strike. When I watched all the

children, their copper, brown. Beige faces staring up at me as I

taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in

talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile

themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of

eternal life…. I'd been in the pulpit too long and I'd seen

too many monstrous things. I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact

that the minister eventually acquires houses and Cadillacs while the

faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters

into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church.

It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. (Fire 38-39)

Before he describes his meeting with Elijah Muhammad in “The

Fire Next Time,”. Baldwin asserts that “whoever wishes to

become a truly moral human being …. Must first divorce himself from all

the prohibitions, crimes. Hypocrisies of the Christian church”


These kinds of comments about religion have prompted some literary

critics to compare Baldwin to Richard Wright, Baldwin’s first

literary mentor, who sharply criticized Christianity in Black Boy,

Native Son. Other works. Who focused his literary efforts on

racial and social issues, not on the pathways toward religious

salvation. Hence, many critics, viewing Baldwin, perhaps, as the second

coming of Wright, mightn't have explored fully the religious dimensions

of some of Baldwin’s key literary works. That might be the case

with “Sonny’s Blues.”

Despite walking away from the church as a young man, however,

Baldwin created Christian texts throughout his literary career. Go Tell

It on the Mountain recounts the quest for salvation of John Grimes, a

fictional James Baldwin. The novel’s title, its section headings

(“The Seventh Day,”. “The Prayers of the Saints,”. And

“The Threshing Floor”). Its richly symbolic language suggest Baldwin’s debt to the Bible and the Christian church.

“The Fire Next Time,”. Baldwin’s most forceful analysis of

the racial landscape of the United States, is a contemporary jeremiad–a

stirring sermon delivered by preacher-author Baldwin to warn his

countrymen that the evils of racism might destroy their nation and bring

upon it God’s condemnation and vengeful fury. Baldwin ends the text

with the same kind of rhetorical flourish with which he undoubtedly

ended the church sermons that he delivered as a Junior Minister:

If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the

relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or

create, the consciousness of the others–don't falter in our duty

now, we may be able, handful that we're, to end the racial

nitemare. Achieve our country. Change the history of the

world. If we don't now dare everything, the fulfillment of that

prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!


“The Fire Next Time”. Suggests that the rhetoric and

substance of the Bible remained with Baldwin long after he walked away

from the Christian church.

“Sonny’s Blues,”. Published six years before

“The Fire Next Time,”. Is a contemporary retelling of the

parable of the Prodigal Son. That parable from Luke’s gospel

records the story of a man with two sons. The younger son asks for the

inheritance promised him by his father and leaves home. He “took

his journey into a far country. There wasted his substance with

riotous living”. (Luke 15.13). The elder son remains with the

father. A famine prompts the prodigal son to return home and beg for a

job as a field hand on his father’s estate, where he might at least

enjoy regular meals. “Father,”. He says, “I've sinned

against heaven. In thy sight. Am no more worthy to be called thy

son”. (Luke 15.21). But the father happily welcomes back his wayward

son, ordering that a fatted calf be killed for a celebration of the

young man’s return. When the older son returns from work in the

field and hears the celebration, he becomes angry and confronts his

father: “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed

I at any time thy commandment. Yet thou never gavest me a kid, that

I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was

come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for

him the fatted calf”. (Luke 15.29-30). The father wisely replies,

“Son, thou art ever with me. All that I've is thine. It was

meet that we should be merry. Be glad: for this thy brother was

dead. Is alive again. Was lost. Is found”. (Luke


Like the Prodigal Son parable, “Sonny’s Blues”

features two brothers, an older brother who's remained on the straight

and narrow path and a younger brother who's engaged in riotous living.

The narrator, who's escaped the dangers of Harlem’s streets to

become a solid family man and a mathematics teacher in a Harlem high

school, tells the tale of his younger brother Sonny, a jazz / blues

musician trapped in heroin addiction. As the story opens, the narrator

reads in the newspaper about Sonny’s arrest for drug possession and

sale. The narrator had been out of contact with Sonny for some time

because he disapproved of Sonny’s friends and his lifestyle.

“I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike

all the time,”. The narrator says about Sonny, “and I

didn’t like his friends. His music seemed to be merely an

excuse for the life he led. It just sounded weird and disordered”

(126). After a major argument with Sonny, the narrator explains,

“So I got mad and then he got mad. Then I told him that he

might as well be dead as live the way he was living”. (126). Like

the younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, Sonny is lost. And

Sonny’s older brother, like his self-righteous counterpart in the

New Testament story, has little sympathy or concern for his wayward

brother’s situation.

But while Sonny serves time in prison for his crimes, the narrator

ruminates about his obligation to his lost brother, whom he promised to

watch over after their mother’s death. At first, the narrator

ignores Sonny. He doesn't visit Sonny in prison. Even write to him

during his imprisonment. But the death of the narrator’s daughter,

Grace, prompts the narrator to write to Sonny and then welcome his

prodigal brother into his home after Sonny is released from prison. The

two brothers reconcile. In the story’s final scene, which takes

place in a jazz club where Sonny is performing, the narrator comes to

understand Sonny’s blues–his dark moods and the music that

sustains him through them. After Sonny’s performance, the narrator

salutes Sonny by sending him a drink, which, sitting atop Sonny’s

piano, glows above Sonny’s head “like the very cup of

trembling”. (141).

Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, “Sonny’s

Blues”. Is a tale of sin and redemption. In both stories, the lost

son ultimately returns to the family fold and is saved. In

Baldwin’s story, the event that initiates Sonny’s safe return

home and the reconciliation between the brothers is the death of the

narrator’s daughter, Grace, of polio. Sitting alone in his dark

living room after Grace’s funeral, Baldwin’s narrator

“suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real”. (127).

The narrator, whose respectable lifestyle has shielded him from the kind

of troubles that Sonny has faced, writes a letter of reconciliation to

Sonny in prison that very day. As Ronald Bieganowski suggests,

“Though Sonny’s brother’s preoccupation with himself

makes him intolerant of Sonny’s troubles, the pain and mystery of

his daughter’s death waken him to his wife’s wound and to

Sonny’s need”. (71). The narrator’s awakening on the day

of his daughter’s funeral opens a path toward both reconciliation

with Sonny and his own redemption.

The narrator’s daughter’s name is, of course, highly

symbolic. When the narrator loses his daughter Grace, he simultaneously

identifies with the pain and darkness in Sonny’s life and realizes

his own loss of grace, resulting from the broken promise that he made to

his mother the last time he saw her. When the narrator was on furlough from the army, he'd a discussion with his mother about Sonny. The

brothers’. Father had already died. Their mother worried about

who'd care for Sonny after she was gone. “If anything happens

to me he ain’t going to have nobody to look out for him,”. She

tells her oldest son. The narrator tries to assure his mother that Sonny

is “a good boy and he’s got good sense”. (116). His

mother drives home her point with a poignant story about the death of

her husband’s younger brother, who was killed in a car accident on

a dark nite many years earlier. “You got to hold on to your

brother,”. The woman tells her son, “and don’t let him

fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how

evil you gets with him”. (118). The narrator promises that he'll

care for Sonny. Later confesses, “I pretty well forgot my

promise to Mama until I got shipped home on a special furlough for her

funeral”. (119).

By neglecting his younger brother, Baldwin’s narrator has

become a contemporary Cain. In Genesis, after Cain kills his younger

brother Abel, God asks Cain about Abel’s whereabouts. “I know

not,”. Cain replies. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

(Gen. 4.9). That last conversation between Baldwin’s narrator and

his mother suggests that he should be his brother’s keeper. The

narrator has failed miserably at that duty, which is apparent in the

telling opening sentence of “Sonny’s Blues”: “I read

about it [Sonny’s arrest] in the paper, in the subway, on my way to

work”. (103). If the narrator had to rely on a newspaper report to

become aware of Sonny’s trouble, he couldn't have been keeping his

promise to his mother to care for his younger brother. Sonny didn't

even bother to call his older brother after the arrest.

On the day that the narrator reads of Sonny’s arrest, he's a

conversation with one of Sonny’s friends that highlights the

narrator’s troubled relationship with Sonny. When the

narrator’s teaching day is over, he leaves the school building and

sees a friend of Sonny in the school courtyard. The boy looks just like

Sonny–the narrator almost calls out Sonny’s name–and the narrator

flatly states, “I’d never liked him…. But now, abruptly, I

hated him”. (105). The mere appearance of someone who resembles

Sonny provokes a response of hatred from the narrator. After the

narrator engages the street kid in conversation, the boy asks the

narrator what he'll do about Sonny. The narrator’s response

echoes the response, in Genesis, that Cain gave to God when He asked

Cain about Abel’s whereabouts: “Look. I haven’t seen

Sonny for over a year,”. Baldwin’s narrator tells Sonny’s

friend. “I’m not sure I’m going to do anything. Anyway,

what the hell can I do?”. (106). In other words, “Am I my

brother’s keeper?”. Toward the end of his conversation with

Sonny’s friend, the narrator says about Sonny’s trouble,

“Well, I guess it’s none of my business”. (108)

Genesis is often referred to as the story of The Fall, and

Baldwin’s reliance on that biblical text is evident in the many

prominent places where Baldwin uses the verb “to fall”. In

“Sonny’s Blues.”. When he greets Sonny on his release from

prison, the narrator thinks back to Sonny’s first steps: “I

had been there when he was born. I'd heard the first words he'd

ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight

to me. I caught him before he fell when he took the first steps he ever

took in this world”. (111). The memory serves as a reminder to the

narrator that the duty of an older brother is to keep his younger

brother from falling–a responsibility at which the narrator has

certainly failed. The last request of the narrator’s mother of her

older son is “to hold on to your brother …. Don’t let him

fall”. (118). The narrator uses the verb “to fall”. Again

when he describes the first evidence of the disease that caused his

daughter’s death: “Isabel was in the kitchen fixing lunch for

the two boys when they’d come home from school. She heard Grace

fall down in the living room…. And she ran to the living room and

there was little Grace on the floor, all twisted up. The reason she

hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath”

(127). Grace’s fall reminds the narrator of both Sonny’s fall

and his own fall from grace for ignoring the promise that he made to his

mother not to let Sonny fall.

Unlike the Cain of Genesis, however, the narrator of

“Sonny’s Blues”. Has the possibility of redemption. To

redeem himself, however, the narrator must save his prodigal younger

brother. As Reid suggests, the narrator discovers “that he can't

free himself from responsibility for his brother. He's his

brother’s keeper”. (445). The narrator’s understanding of

that sacred responsibility becomes evident in a conversation that the

narrator has with Sonny after Sonny has been released from prison and

has joined the narrator’s household. One Sunday afternoon, the two

brothers look out a window of the narrator’s apartment at a gospel

singer performing on the Harlem street corner below. Sonny tells his

brother that the singer’s voice reminded him of the feeling of

heroin in his veins–“warm and cool at the same time”. (131).

The narrator is troubled when Sonny states, “Sometimes you’ve

got to have that feeling”. Sonny explains that he needs that

feeling to keep from suffering, “to keep from shaking to

pieces”. (131). The narrator, still mourning his daughter’s

death, suggests to Sonny that “there’s no way not to

suffer”. (132). He doesn't want to see Sonny take up drug use

again and “die–trying not to suffer”. (133).

Then, the narrator tries to renew his promise to take care of

Sonny, to become his brother’s keeper:

I wanted to say more. I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will

power and how life could be–well, beautiful. I wanted to say

that it was all within. Was it? or, rather, wasn’t that exactly

the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I'd never fail him

again. But it'd all have sounded–empty words and lies.

So I made the promise to myself and prayed that I'd keep

it. (133)

Having made the promise to himself, the narrator conveys to Sonny,

in that muted language of men, that he understands Sonny’s troubles

and his own responsibility as an older brother. When Sonny confesses

that his need for heroin “can come again”. (135), the narrator,

after a pause, responds with genuine understanding to Sonny’s


“All right,”. I said, at last. “So it can come again.

All right.”

He smiled. The smile was sorrowful. “I'd to try to tell

you,”. He said.

“Yes,”. I said. “I understand that.”

“You’re my brother,”. He said, looking straight at

me. Not smiling at all.

“Yes,”. I repeated, “yes. I understand that.”


The narrator now understands his younger brother’s

vulnerability and is ready to fulfill the promise that he made to his

mother to care for Sonny in her absence.

The story’s final scene, which takes place in the niteclub

where Sonny’s band is scheduled to play and culminates with the

symbolic drink that the narrator sends to Sonny, provides evidence that

Sonny’s redemption is certainly possible. As the band jams, the

music “hit something”. In the narrator. The band “began to

tell us what the blues were all about.”. Somehow the music conveys

to Baldwin’s narrator “the tale of how we suffer. How we

are delighted. How we may triumph,”. That tale, the narrator

realizes, is “the only light we’ve got in all this

darkness”. (139). Then Sonny, at the piano, takes control of the

song that the band is playing–“Am I Blue”–and the reader

senses that Sonny has found a new drug, that music has become his new

fix that can keep him from shaking to pieces. The narrator acknowledges

that no human being is completely safe–“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”

(140)–but for that moment, at the piano in that niteclub, the prodigal

Sonny is in control. He isn't shaking to pieces and not dying trying

not to shake to pieces. And his older brother, the narrator, is

carefully and lovingly watching over him, serving as his brother’s


When Sonny’s band takes a break, the narrator beckons a

waitress and asks her to send drinks to the band members. The narrator

watches as the waitress “put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano

for Sonny.”. Sonny doesn't immediately notice the drink, “but

just before they started playing again,”. The narrator states,

“he [Sonny] sipped from it and looked toward me. Nodded. Then

he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play

again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very

cup of trembling”. (140-41).

Mosher argues that the story’s final image–the drink glowing

above Sonny’s head–signals “first, that Sonny has completely

overcome his weakness for drugs and can now remain a successful

musician. Second, it reinforces the idea that the elder brother will no

longer attempt to ‘control’. Sonny’s behavior and will no

longer show his disapproval when Sonny falls short of the elder

brother’s expectations.”. Now, according to Mosher, “Sonny

has achieved full freedom”. (59). But more can be said about this

Old Testament allusion that concludes Baldwin’s story. The drink

represents more than Sonny’s freedom. It symbolizes Sonny’s

redemption–a redemption born of sin. The term “cup of

trembling”. Comes from the book of Isaiah. God pledges to aid the

people of Jerusalem, even though they'd sinned. Having sinned, they

had “drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury,”. Even

“the dregs of the cup of trembling.”. God’s Chosen People

have erred. A forgiving God “pleadeth the cause of his people,

Behold, I've taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the

dregs of the cup of my fury. Thou shalt no more drink it again: but I

will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee”. (Isa. 51.17,

22-23). From now on, the people of Jerusalem, despite their past sins,

are under God’s special care. The cup of trembling has become a

symbol of God’s special protection. he'll put the cup in the

hands of those who afflict His Chosen People. As Sanderson suggests, the

narrator, “puts himself in the role of the Lord and, by offering

Sonny the drink, takes the cup of wrath from him”. (94).

Like the sinners in the book of Isaiah, Sonny has sinned. he's,

indeed, drunk from the cup of trembling. And like the people of

Jerusalem in the Old Testament story, Sonny has suffered God’s

fury. Is now free from affliction. The glowing glass on the piano

above Sonny, his personal cup of trembling, has become, in effect, a

shining halo above Sonny’s head. His sinning and suffering and

redemption, in some way, have sainted Sonny. What the father of the

prodigal son in Luke’s gospel said to his older son about his

reckless younger sibling applies to Baldwin’s narrator and to

Sonny: “for this thy brother was dead. Is alive again. Was

lost. Is found”. (Luke 15.31-32). The narrator bought Sonny the

drink that now glows above Sonny like the cup of trembling. The

drink becomes a symbol of the special protection that the narrator will

now extend to Sonny as Sonny struggles to confront the darkness

surrounding him. Hence, the narrator, too, is redeemed in Baldwin’s

story. He, unlike the Cain of Genesis, has accepted the

responsibility to be his brother’s keeper.

Critical discussion of “Sonny’s Blues”. Has centered

on secular matters –the narrator’s identity issues and

Baldwin’s use of music. Acknowledging the complex interweaving of

biblical texts that forms the foundation of Baldwin’s most

noteworthy short story allows readers to understand and to appreciate in

a small way Baldwin’s significant debt to biblical literature and

to grapple with the religious and moral issues at the core of this

Christian writer’s most important literary efforts.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “The Fire Next Time.”. 1962. New York:

Vintage, 1993.

–. “Notes for The Amen Corner.”. The Amen Corner. London:

Michael Joseph, 1969. 814.

–. “Sonny’s Blues.”. Going to Meet the Man. 1965.

New York: Vintage, 1995.

Bieganowski, Ronald. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness

in ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Giovanni’s Room.”. CLA

Journal 32 (1988): 69-80.

Byerman, Keith. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in

‘Sonny’s Blues.'”. Studies in Short Fiction 19

(1982): 367-72.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New

York: Viking, 1991.

Goldman, Suzy Bernhard. “James Baldwin’s

‘Sonny’s Blues’: A Message in Music.”. Negro American

Literature Forum 8 (1974): 231-33.

The Holy Bible. King James Version. 1611. New York: American Bible

Society, n.d.

Jones, Jacqueline C. “Finding a Way to Listen: The Emergence

of the Hero as an Artist.”. CLA Journal 42 (1999): 462-82.

Mosher, Marlene. “Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s

Blues.'”. Explicator 40.4 (1982): 59.

Murray, Donald C. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s

Blues’: Complicated and Simple.”. Studies in Short Fiction 14

(1977): 353-57.

Reid, Robert. “The Powers of Darkness in ‘Sonny’s

Blues.'”. CLA Journal 43 (2000): 443-53.

Sanderson, Jim. “Grace in ‘Sonny’s

Blues.'”. Short Story 6.2 (1998): 85-95.

Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s

‘Blues Text’. As Intracultural Critique.”. African American

Review 32 (1998): 691-705.


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