James Baldwin’s short story Sonny’s Blues is, among other things, an examination of the relationship between human interiors and the exterior world in which they exist. The two main characters, Sonny and his brother, the narrator, are black men living in Harlem in the middle of the last century. Their community is predominantly black, poor, and struggling to find hope. It exists as almost a segregated urban island in a racially charged white sea. Inside of these two men, and by extension of all people, is the roily search for personal identity. They try to balance the relationship between this inner turmoil with their bleak surroundings.
Sonny is the younger musician brother of the narrator, and when the story opens he has just gotten arrested for drug use. The narrator reads about Sonny’s arrest in the newspaper while traveling in a subway car, and the complex relationship between him and his surroundings is first described: “I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside”. Later, at the high-school where he is a teacher, the news of his brother sits inside him like a “great block of ice” . It is a hard, cold weight that melts without losing size.
He ruminates that Sonny was probably not much older than his students when he first tried heroin. And in looking out at his students, he sees the same inner rage set against the dingy, gray background of their city. Their favorite form of escape is the movie theater, and it serves as a fine metaphor for the struggle that each individual child has with the outside world:
All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.
The boys are at once sharing a common experience and at the same time are having a solitary experience. It is the same duality that we see with Sonny and his brother. Their struggle is not solely with the society around them but also with themselves and the manner in which they transition from their inner lives to their external lives. It is often this flow between the internal and the external that is so hard to navigate.