Sonny, in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” is a deeply sympathetic character precisely because of his desire to pull away the layers of denial and defense mechanisms black people have been forced to put on in order to survive in a racist society. His need to listen to what no one else is listening to comes from an artistic urge, but it also comes from a need to “experience” life rather than hide from it. Baldwin, in his essay “Autobiographical Notes,” writes that “[O]ne writes out of one thing only -- one’s own experience”, then goes on to state that “[T]he difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely...” Sonny’s desire to listen to the pain, joy, anger, fear, love, and hate felt by a people comes out of this need to embrace those experiences rather than hide from them. His difficulty is not in just “listening” to those experiences, but in finding the appropriate language to express them. If black people, as Baldwin states, have been denied the right to express those experiences honestly, they have also been denied the language with which to express them.
Language and literacy have always been an issue within the context of African American history. When slaves were brought to the States they were stripped of their native tongues, and then were denied the right to read and write in a society where literacy determined one’s ability to survive within said society. But African descendants were able to find other means of expression -- through the arts or crafts -- to find a language that expressed their unique experiences. Sonny’s use of music, and to a certain extent even drugs, to find a way to not only “listen” to those experiences, but to “express” them, places him within a tradition of African American survivalist instincts. Sonny’s desires are so strong that they are self-immolating, and yet he is a character neither to be pitied or loathed. His need to bring together the black community by searching for a language in which they can collectively express “that storm inside” not only makes him sympathetic, but heroic as well.