We will be discussing James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room at BookPeople on July 27th at 5pm. All are welcome to join. It may also be of interest to Voyager’s to read Baldwin’s amazing short story, Sonny’s Blues.
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe
it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name,
spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces
and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared
It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station
to the high school. And at the same time I couldn’t doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny.
He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting
there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It
kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.
Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come
spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I
was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.
When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open,
there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great
gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the
evening before, in a raid on an apartment down-town, for peddling and using heroin.
I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere
inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know. I had had
suspicions, but I didn’t name them, I kept putting them away. I told myself that Sonny was
wild, but he wasn’t crazy. And he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or
evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn’t want
to believe that I’d ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his
face gone out, in the condition I’d already seen so many others. Yet it had happened and
here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew,
be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than
I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn’t have been much older
than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were
growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their
actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the
darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, 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.
When the last bell rang, the last class ended, I let out my breath. It seemed I’d been holding
it for all that time. My clothes were wet-I may have looked as though I’d been sitting in a
steam bath, all dressed up, all afternoon. I sat alone in the classroom a long time. I listened
to the boys outside, downstairs, shouting and cursing and laughing. Their laughter struck me
for perhaps the first time. It was not the joyous laughter which-God knows why-one
associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate. It was
disenchanted, and in this, also, lay the authority of their curses. Perhaps I was listening to
them because I was thinking about my brother and in them I heard my brother. And myself.
One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be
pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through
all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.
I stood up and walked over to the window and looked down into the court-yard. It was the
beginning of the spring and the sap was rising in the boys. A teacher passed through them
every now and again, quickly, as though he or she couldn’t wait to get out of that courtyard,
to get those boys out of their sight and off their minds. I started collecting my stuff. I thought
I’d better get home and talk to Isabel.
The courtyard was almost deserted by the time I got downstairs. I saw this boy standing in
the shadow of a doorway, looking just like Sonny. I almost called his name. Then I saw that it
wasn’t Sonny, but somebody we used to know, a boy from around our block. He’d been
Sonny’s friend. He’d never been mine, having been too young for me, and, anyway, I’d never
liked him. And now, even though he was a grown-up man, he still hung around that block,
still spent hours on the street corners, was always high and raggy. I used to run into him
from time to time and he’d often work around to asking me for a quarter or fifty cents. He
always had some real good excuse, too, and I always gave it to him. I don’t know why.
But now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog,
partly like a cunning child. I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in the school
He sort of shuffled over to me, and he said, “I see you got the papers. So you already know
“You mean about Sonny? Yes, I already know about it. How come they didn’t get you?”
He grinned. It made him repulsive and it also brought to mind what he’d looked like as a kid.
“I wasn’t there. I stay away from them people.”
“Good for you.” I offered him a cigarette and I watched him through the smoke. “You come all
the way down here just to tell me about Sonny?”
“That’s right.” He was sort of shaking his head and his eyes looked strange, as though they
were about to cross. The bright sun deadened his damp dark brown skin and it made his
eyes look yellow and showed up the dirt in his kinked hair. He smelled funky. I moved a little
away from him and I said, “Well, thanks. But I already know about it and I got to get home.”
“I’ll walk you a little ways,” he said. We started walking. There were a couple of lads still
loitering in the courtyard and one of them said goodnight to me and looked strangely at the
boy beside me.
“What’re you going to do?” he asked me. “I mean, about Sonny?”
“Look. I haven’t seen Sonny for over a year, I’m not sure I’m going to do anything. Anyway,
what the hell can I do?”
“That’s right,” he said quickly, “ain’t nothing you can do. Can’t much help old Sonny no more,
It was what I was thinking and so it seemed to me he had no right to say it.
“I’m surprised at Sonny, though,” he went on-he had a funny way of talking, he looked
straight ahead as though he were talking to himself-“I thought Sonny was a smart boy, I
thought he was too smart to get hung.”
“I guess he thought so too,” I said sharply, “and that’s how he got hung. And how about you?
You’re pretty goddamn smart, I bet.”
Then he looked directly at me, just for a minute. “I ain’t smart,” he said. “If I was smart, I’d
have reached for a pistol a long time ago.”
“Look. Don’t tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I’d give you one.” Then I felt guilty-
guilty, probably, for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own,
much less a sad one, and I asked, quickly, “What’s going to happen to him now?”
He didn’t answer this. He was off by himself some place.
“Funny thing,” he said, and from his tone we might have been discussing the quickest way to
get to Brooklyn, “when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I
had anything to do with it. I felt sort of responsible.”
I began to listen more carefully. The subway station was on the corner, just before us, and I
stopped. He stopped, too. We were in front of a bar and he ducked slightly, peering in, but
whoever he was looking for didn’t seem to be there. The juke box was blasting away with
something black and bouncy and I half watched the barmaid as she danced her way from
the juke box to her place behind the bar. And I watched her face as she laughingly
responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the music. When she
smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the
battered face of the semi-whore.
“I never give Sonny nothing,” the boy said finally, “but a long time ago I come to school high
and Sonny asked me how it felt.” He paused, I couldn’t bear to watch him, I watched the
barmaid, and I listened to the music which seemed to be causing the pavement to shake. “I
told him it felt great.” The music stopped, the barmaid paused and watched the juke box
until the music began again. “It did.”
All this was carrying me some place I didn’t want to go. I certainly didn’t want to know how it
felt. It filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid,
with menace; and this menace was their reality.
“What’s going to happen to him now?” I asked again.
“They’ll send him away some place and they’ll try to cure him.” He shook his head. “Maybe
he’ll even think he’s kicked the habit. Then they’ll let him loose”-he gestured, throwing his
cigarette into the gutter. “That’s all.”
“What do you mean, that’s all?”
But I knew what he meant.
“I mean, that’s all.” He turned his head and looked at me, pulling down the corners of his
mouth. “Don’t you know what I mean?” he asked, softly.
“How the hell would I know what you mean?” I almost whispered it, I don’t know why.
“That’s right,” he said to the air, “how would he know what I mean?” He turned toward me
again, patient and calm, and yet I somehow felt him shaking, shaking as though he were
going to fall apart. I felt that ice in my guts again, the dread I’d felt all afternoon; and again I
watched the barmaid, moving about the bar, washing glasses, and singing. “Listen. They’ll let
him out and then it’ll just start all over again. That’s what I mean.”
“You mean-they’ll let him out. And then he’ll just start working his way back in again. You
mean he’ll never kick the habit. Is that what you mean?”
“That’s right,” he said, cheerfully. “You see what I mean.”
“Tell me,” I said at last, “why does he want to die? He must want to die, he’s killing himself,
why does he want to die?”
He looked at me in surprise. He licked his lips. “He don’t want to die. He wants to live. Don’t
nobody want to die, ever.”
Then I wanted to ask him-too many things. He could not have answered, or if he had, I could
not have borne the answers. I started walking. “Well, I guess it’s none of my business.”
“It’s going to be rough on old Sonny,” he said. We reached the subway station. “This is your
station?” he asked. I nodded. I took one step down. “Damn!” he said, suddenly. I looked up
at him. He grinned again. “Damn it if I didn’t leave all my money home. You ain’t got a dollar
on you, have you? Just for a couple of days, is all.”
All at once something inside gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn’t hate
him any more. I felt that in another moment I’d start crying like a child.
“Sure,” I said. “Don’t sweat.” I looked in my wallet and didn’t have a dollar, I only had a five.
“Here,” I said. “That hold you?”
He didn’t look at it-he didn’t want to look at it. A terrible, closed look came over his face, as
though he were keeping the number on the bill a secret from him and me. “Thanks,” he said,
and now he was dying to see me go. “Don’t worry about Sonny. Maybe I’ll write him or
“Sure,” I said. “You do that. So long.”
“Be seeing you,” he said. I went on down the steps.
And I didn’t write Sonny or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just
after my little girl died, and he wrote me back a letter which made me feel like a bastard.
Here’s what he said:
You don’t know how much I needed to hear from you. I wanted to write you many a time but I
dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn’t write. But now I feel like a man who’s
been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up
there, outside. I got to get outside.
I can’t tell you much about how I got here. I mean I don’t know how to tell you. I guess I was
afraid of something or I was trying to escape from something and you know I have never
been very strong in the head (smile). I’m glad Mama and Daddy are dead and can’t see
what’s happened to their son and I swear if I’d known what I was doing I would never have
hurt you so, you and a lot of other fine people who were nice to me and who believed in me.
I don’t want you to think it had anything to do with me being a musician.
It’s more than that. Or maybe less than that. I can’t get anything straight in my head down
here and I try not to think about what’s going to happen to me when I get outside again.
Sometime I think I’m going to flip and never get outside and sometime I think I’ll come
straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I’d rather blow my brains out than go through this
again. But that’s what they all say, so they tell me. If I tell you when I’m coming to New York
and if you could meet me, I sure would appreciate it. Give my love to Isabel and the kids and
I was sure sorry to hear about little Gracie. I wish I could be like Mama and say the Lord’s will
be done, but I don’t know it seems to me that trouble is the one thing that never does get
stopped and I don’t know what good it does to blame it on the
Lord. But maybe it does some good if you believe it.
Then I kept in constant touch with him and I sent him whatever I could and I went to meet
him when he came back to New York. When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten
came flooding back to me. This was because I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny,
about the life that Sonny lived inside. This life, whatever it was, had made him older and
thinner and it had deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved. He looked
very unlike my baby brother. Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother
I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be
coaxed into the light.
“How you been keeping?” he asked me.
“All right. And you?”
“Just fine.” He was smiling all over his face. “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you.”
The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm: I wondered if these
years would ever operate between us as a bridge. I was remembering, and it made it hard to
catch my breath, that I had been there when he was born; and I had heard the first words he
had ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight to me. I
caught him just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world.
“Just fine. She’s dying to see you.”
“And the boys?”
“They’re fine, too. They’re anxious to see their uncle.”
“Oh, come on. You know they don’t remember me.”
“Are you kidding? Of course they remember you.”
He grinned again. We got into a taxi. We had a lot to say to each other, far too much to know
how to begin.
As the taxi began to move, I asked, “You still want to go to India?”
He laughed. “You still remember that. Hell, no. This place is Indian enough for me.”
“It used to belong to them,” I said.
And he laughed again. “They damn sure knew what they were doing when they got rid of it.”
Years ago, when he was around fourteen, he’d been all hipped on the idea of going to India.
He read books about people sitting on rocks, naked, in all kinds of weather, but mostly bad,
naturally, and walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving at wisdom. I used to say that it
sounded to me as though they were getting away from wisdom as fast as they could. I think
he sort of looked down on me for that.
“Do you mind,” he asked, “if we have the driver drive alongside the park? On the west side-I
haven’t seen the city in so long.”
“Of course not,” I said. I was afraid that I might sound as though I were humoring him, but I
hoped he wouldn’t take it that way.
So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels
and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets
hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle
of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the
stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops
from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past
yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found
themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and
found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got
out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave
it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher;
or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown
through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly
studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate
cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It’s always at the hour of
trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.
We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I’d known this avenue all my
life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I’d first heard about Sonny’s
trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life.
“We almost there,” said Sonny.
“Almost.” We were both too nervous to say anything more.
We live in a housing project. It hasn’t been up long. A few days after it was up it seemed
uninhabitably new, now, of course, it’s already rundown. It looks like a parody of the good,
clean, faceless life-God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody. The
beat-looking grass lying around isn’t enough to make their lives green, the hedges will never
hold out the streets, and they know it. The big windows fool no one, they aren’t big enough to
make space out of no space. They don’t bother with the windows, they watch the TV screen
instead. The playground is most popular with the children who don’t play at jacks, or skip
rope, or roller skate, or swing, and they can be found in it after dark. We moved in partly
because it’s not too far from where I teach, and partly for the kids; but it’s really just like the
houses in which Sonny and I grew up. The same things happen, they’ll have the same things
to remember. The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was
simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.
Sonny has never been talkative. So I don’t know why I was sure he’d be dying to talk to me
when supper was over the first night. Everything went fine, the oldest boy remembered him,
and the youngest boy liked him, and Sonny had remembered to bring something for each of
them; and Isabel, who is really much nicer than I am, more open and giving, had gone to a
lot of trouble about dinner and was genuinely glad to see him. And she’s always been able to
tease Sonny in a way that I haven’t. It was nice to see her face so vivid again and to hear her
laugh and watch her make Sonny laugh. She wasn’t, or, anyway, she didn’t seem to be, at all
uneasy or embarrassed. She chatted as though there were no subject which had to be
avoided and she got Sonny past his first, faint stiffness. And thank God she was there, for I
was filled with that icy dread again. Everything I did seemed awkward to me, and everything I
said sounded freighted with hidden meaning. I was trying to remember everything I’d heard
about dope addiction and I couldn’t help watching Sonny for signs. I wasn’t doing it out of
malice. I was trying to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me
he was safe.
“Safe!” my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood
which might be safer for children. “Safe, hell! Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor nobody.”
He always went on like this, but he wasn’t, ever, really as bad as he sounded, not even on
weekends, when he got drunk. As a matter of fact, he was always on the lookout for
“something a little better,” but he died before he found it. He died suddenly, during a
drunken weekend in the middle of the war, when Sonny was fifteen. He and Sonny hadn’t
ever got on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father’s eye. It
was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always
fighting with him. It doesn’t do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves back, inside
himself, where he can’t be reached. But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that
they were so much alike. Daddy was big and rough and loud-talking, just the opposite of
Sonny, but they both had-that same privacy.
Mama tried to tell me something about this, just after Daddy died. I was home on leave from
This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive. Just the same, this picture gets all mixed
up in my mind with pictures I had other when she was younger. The way I always see her is
the way she used to be on a Sunday afternoon, say, when the old folks were talking after the
big Sunday dinner. I always see her wearing pale blue. She’d be sitting on the sofa. And my
father would be sitting in the easy chair, not far from her. And the living room would be full of
church folks and relatives. There they sit, in chairs all around the living room, and the night
is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness growing against
the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling
beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a
moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. And my
mother rocks a little from the waist, and my father’s eyes are closed. Everyone is looking at
something a child can’t see. For a minute they’ve forgotten the children. Maybe a kid is lying
on the rug, half asleep. Maybe somebody’s got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly
stroking the lad’s head. Maybe there’s a kid, quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in
the comer. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the
child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop-will never
die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around
the living room, talking about where they’ve come from, and what they’ve seen, and what’s
happened to them and their kinfolk.
But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already
ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will
remember the children and they won’t talk any more that day. And when light fills the room,
the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a
little closer to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been
talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they
won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll
know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.
The last time I talked to my mother, I remember I was restless. I wanted to get out and see
Isabel. We weren’t married then and we had a lot to straighten out between us.
There Mama sat, in black, by the window. She was humming an old church song. Lord, you
brought me from a long ways off. Sonny was out somewhere. Mama kept watching the
“I don’t know,” she said, “if I’ll ever see you again, after you go off from here. But I hope you’ll
remember the things I tried to teach you.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I said, and smiled. “You’ll be here a long time yet.”
She smiled, too, but she said nothing. She was quiet for a long time. And I said, “Mama,
don’t you worry about nothing. I’ll be writing all the time, and you be getting the checks….”
“I want to talk to you about your brother,” she said, suddenly. “If anything happens to me he
ain’t going to have nobody to look out for him.”
“Mama,” I said, “ain’t nothing going to happen to you or Sonny. Sonny’s all right. He’s a good
boy and he’s got good sense.”
“It ain’t a question of his being a good boy,” Mama said, “nor of his having good sense. It
ain’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under.” She stopped,
looking at me. “Your Daddy once had a brother,” she said, and she smiled in a way that
made me feel she was in pain. “You didn’t never know that, did you?”
“No,” I said, “I never knew that,” and I watched her face.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “your Daddy had a brother.” She looked out of the window again. “I know
you never saw your Daddy cry. But I did-many a time, through all these years.”
I asked her, “What happened to his brother? How come nobody’s ever talked about him?”
This was the first time I ever saw my mother look old.
“His brother got killed,” she said, “when he was just a little younger than you are now. I knew
him. He was a fine boy. He was maybe a little full of the devil, but he didn’t mean nobody no
Then she stopped and the room was silent, exactly as it had sometimes been on those
Sunday afternoons. Mama kept looking out into the streets.
“He used to have a job in the mill,” she said, “and, like all young folks, he just liked to
perform on Saturday nights. Saturday nights, him and your father would drift around to
different places, go to dances and things like that, or just sit around with people they knew,
and your father’s brother would sing, he had a fine voice, and play along with himself on his
guitar. Well, this particular Saturday night, him and your father was coming home from some
place, and they were both a little drunk and there was a moon that night, it was bright like
day. Your father’s brother was feeling kind of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he
had his guitar slung over his shoulder. They was coming down a hill and beneath them was a
road that turned off from the highway. Well, your father’s brother, being always kind of frisky,
decided to run down this hill, and he did, with that guitar banging and clanging behind him,
and he ran across the road, and he was making water behind a tree. And your father was
sort of amused at him and he was still coming down the hill, kind of slow. Then he heard a
car motor and that same minute his brother stepped from behind the tree, into the road, in
the moonlight. And he started to cross the road. And your father started to run down the hill,
he says he don’t know why. This car was full of white men. They was all drunk, and when
they seen your father’s brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car
straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do
sometimes, you know. But they was drunk. And I guess the boy, being drunk, too, and
scared, kind of lost his head. By the time he jumped it was too late. Your father says he
heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar
when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting,
and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day. And, time your father got down
the hill, his brother weren’t nothing but blood and pulp.”
Tears were gleaming on my mother’s face. There wasn’t anything I could say.
“He never mentioned it,” she said, “because I never let him mention it before you children.
Your Daddy was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter. He says he
never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone
away. Weren’t nothing, weren’t nobody on that road, just your Daddy and his brother and
that busted guitar. Oh, yes. Your Daddy never did really get right again. Till the day he died
he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”
She stopped and took out her handkerchief and dried her eyes and looked at me.
“I ain’t telling you all this,” she said, “to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate
nobody. I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed.”
I guess I didn’t want to believe this. I guess she saw this in my face. She turned away from
me, toward the window again, searching those streets.
“But I praise my Redeemer,” she said at last, “that He called your Daddy home before me. I
ain’t saying it to throw no flowers at myself, but, I declare, it keeps me from feeling too cast
down to know I helped your father get safely through this world. Your father always acted
like he was the roughest, strongest man on earth. And everybody took him to be like that.
But if he hadn’t had me there-to see his tears!”
She was crying again. Still, I couldn’t move. I said, “Lord, Lord, Mama, I didn’t know it was
“Oh, honey,” she said, “there’s a lot that you don’t know. But you are going to find out.” She
stood up from the window and came over to me. “You got to hold on to your brother,” she
said, “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. You going to be evil with him many a time. But don’t you forget
what I told you, you hear?”
“I won’t forget,” I said. “Don’t you worry, I won’t forget. I won’t let nothing happen to Sonny.”
My mother smiled as though she was amused at something she saw in my face. Then, “You
may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.”
Two days later I was married, and then I was gone. And I had a lot of things on my mind and I
pretty well forgot my promise to Mama until I got shipped home on a special furlough for her
And, after the funeral, with just Sonny and me alone in the empty kitchen, I tried to find out
something about him.
“What do you want to do?” I asked him.
“I’m going to be a musician,” he said.
For he had graduated, in the time I had been away, from dancing to the juke box to finding
out who was playing what, and what they were doing with it, and he had bought himself a set
“You mean, you want to be a drummer?” I somehow had the feeling that being a drummer
might be all right for other people but not for my brother Sonny.
“I don’t think,” he said, looking at me very gravely, “that I’ll ever be a good drummer. But I
think I can play a piano.”
I frowned. I’d never played the role of the oldest brother quite so seriously before, had
scarcely ever, in fact, asked Sonny a damn thing. I sensed myself in the presence of
something I didn’t really know how to handle, didn’t understand. So I made my frown a little
deeper as I asked: “What kind of musician do you want to be?”
He grinned. “How many kinds do you think there are?”
“Be serious,” I said.
He laughed, throwing his head back, and then looked at me. “I am serious.”
“Well, then, for Christ’s sake, stop kidding around and answer a serious question. I mean, do
you want to be a concert pianist, you want to play classical music and all that, or-or what?”
Long before I finished he was laughing again. “For Christ’s sake. Sonny!”
He sobered, but with difficulty. “I’m sorry. But you sound so-scared!” and he was off again.
“Well, you may think it’s funny now, baby, but it’s not going to be so funny when you have to
make your living at it, let me tell you that.” I was furious because I knew he was laughing at
me and I didn’t know why.
“No,” he said, very sober now, and afraid, perhaps, that he’d hurt me, “I don’t want to be a
classical pianist. That isn’t what interests me. I mean”-he paused, looking hard at me, as
though his eyes would help me to understand, and then gestured helplessly, as though
perhaps his hand would help-“I mean, I’ll have a lot of studying to do, and I’ll have to study
everything, but, I mean, I want to play with-jazz musicians.” He stopped. “I want to play jazz,”
Well, the word had never before sounded as heavy, as real, as it sounded that afternoon in
Sonny’s mouth. I just looked at him and I was probably frowning a real frown by this time. I
simply couldn’t see why on earth he’d want to spend his time hanging around nightclubs,
clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor. It
seemed-beneath him, somehow. I had never thought about it before, had never been forced
to, but I suppose I had always put jazz musicians in a class with what Daddy called “good-
“Are you serious?”
“Hell, yes, I’m serious.”
He looked more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt.
I suggested, helpfully: “You mean-like Louis Armstrong?”
His face closed as though I’d struck him. “No. I’m not talking about none of that old-time,
down home crap.”
“Well, look, Sonny, I’m sorry, don’t get mad. I just don’t altogether get it, that’s all. Name
somebody-you know, a jazz musician you admire.”
“Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?”
I lit a cigarette. I was surprised and then a little amused to discover that I was trembling.
“I’ve been out of touch,” I said. “You’ll have to be patient with me. Now. Who’s this Parker
“He’s just one of the greatest jazz musicians alive,” said Sonny, sullenly, his hands in his
pockets, his back to me. “Maybe the greatest,” he added, bitterly, “that’s probably why you
never heard of him.”
“All right,” I said, “I’m ignorant. I’m sorry. I’ll go out and buy all the cat’s records right away, all
“It don’t,” said Sonny, with dignity, “make any difference to me. I don’t care what you listen
to. Don’t do me no favors.”
I was beginning to realize that I’d never seen him so upset before. With another part of my
mind I was thinking that this would probably turn out to be one of those things kids go
through and that I shouldn’t make it seem important by pushing it too hard. Still, I didn’t
think it would do any harm to ask: “Doesn’t all this take a lot of time? Can you make a living
He turned back to me and half leaned, half sat, on the kitchen table. “Everything takes time,”
he said, “and-well, yes, sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don’t seem to be able to
make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do.”
“Well, Sonny,” I said gently, “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do-”
“No, I don’t know that,” said Sonny, surprising me. “I think people ought to do what they want
to do, what else are they alive for?”
“You getting to be a big boy,” I said desperately, “it’s time you started thinking about your
“I’m thinking about my future,” said Sonny, grimly. “I think about it all the time.”
I gave up. I decided, if he didn’t change his mind, that we could always talk about it later. “In
the meantime,” I said, “you got to finish school.” We had already decided that he’d have to
move in with Isabel and her folks. I knew this wasn’t the ideal arrangement because Isabel’s
folks are inclined to be dicty and they hadn’t especially wanted Isabel to marry me. But I
didn’t know what else to do. “And we have to get you fixed up at Isabel’s.”
There was a long silence. He moved from the kitchen table to the window. “That’s a terrible
idea. You know it yourself.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
He just walked up and down the kitchen for a minute. He was as tall as I was. He had
started to shave. I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t know him at all.
He stopped at the kitchen table and picked up my cigarettes. Looking at me with a land of
mocking, amused defiance, he put one between his lips. “You mind?”
“You smoking already?”
He lit the cigarette and nodded, watching me through the smoke. “I just wanted to see if I’d
have the courage to smoke in front of you.” He grinned and blew a great cloud of smoke to
the ceiling. “It was easy.” He looked at my face. “Come on, now. I bet you was smoking at my
age, tell the truth.”
I didn’t say anything but the truth was on my face, and he laughed. But now there was
something very strained in his laugh. “Sure. And I bet that ain’t all you was doing.”
He was frightening me a little. “Cut the crap,” I said. “We already decided that you was going
to go and live at Isabel’s. Now what’s got into you all of a sudden?”
“You decided it,” he pointed out. “I didn’t decide nothing.” He stopped in front of me, leaning
against the stove, arms loosely folded. “Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no
more, I really don’t.” He was very earnest. He looked at me, then over toward the kitchen
window. There was something in his eyes I’d never seen before, some thoughtfulness, some
worry all his own. He rubbed the muscle of one arm. “It’s time I was getting out of here.”
“Where do you want to go. Sonny?”
“I want to join the army. Or the navy, I don’t care. If I say I’m old enough, they’ll believe me.”
Then I got mad. It was because I was so scared. “You must be crazy. You goddamn fool, what
the hell do you want to go and join the army for?”
“I just told you. To get out of Harlem.”
“Sonny, you haven’t even finished school. And if you really want to be a musician, how do you
expect to study if you’re in the army?”
He looked at me, trapped, and in anguish. “There’s ways. I might be able to work out some
kind of deal. Anyway, I’ll have the G.I. Bill when I come out.”
“If you come out.” We stared at each other. “Sonny, please. Be reasonable. I know the setup
is far from perfect. But we got to do the best we can.”
“I ain’t learning nothing in school,” he said. “Even when I go.” He turned away from me and
opened the window and threw his cigarette out into the narrow alley. I watched his back. “At
least, I ain’t learning nothing you’d want me to learn.” He slammed the window so hard I
thought the glass would fly out, and turned back to me. “And I’m sick of the stink of these
“Sonny,” I said, “I know how you feel. But if you don’t finish school now, you’re going to be
sorry later that you didn’t.” I grabbed him by the shoulders. “And you only got another year. It
ain’t so bad. And I’ll come back and I swear I’ll help you do whatever you want to do. Just try
to put up with it till I come back. Will you please do that? For me?”
He didn’t answer and he wouldn’t look at me.
“Sonny. You hear me?”
He pulled away. “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He looked out of the window and then back at me. “OK,” he
said, and sighed. “I’ll try.”
Then I said, trying to cheer him up a little, “They got a piano at Isabel’s. You can practice on
And as a matter of fact, it did cheer him up for a minute. “That’s right,” he said to himself. “I
forgot that.” His face relaxed a little. But the worry, the thoughtfulness, played on it still, the
way shadows play on a face which is staring into the fire.
But I thought I’d never hear the end of that piano. At first, Isabel would write me, saying how
nice it was that Sonny was so serious about his music and how, as soon as he came in from
school, or wherever he had been when he was supposed to be at school, he went straight to
that piano and stayed there until suppertime. And, after supper, he went back to that piano
and stayed there until everybody went to bed. He was at the piano all day Saturday and all
day Sunday. Then he bought a record player and started playing records. He’d play one
record over and over again, all day long sometimes, and he’d improvise along with it on the
piano. Or he’d play one section of the record, one chord, one change, one progression, then
he’d do it on the piano. Then back to the record. Then back to the piano.
Well, I really don’t know how they stood it. Isabel finally confessed that it wasn’t like living
with a person at all, it was like living with sound. And the sound didn’t make any sense to
her, didn’t make any sense to any of them- naturally. They began, in a way, to be afflicted by
this presence that was living in their home. It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or
monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all. They fed him and he
ate, he washed himself, he walked in and out of their door; he certainly wasn’t nasty or
unpleasant or rude. Sonny isn’t any of those things; but it was as though he were all
wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to
At the same time, he wasn’t really a man yet, he was still a child, and they had to watch out
for him in all kinds of ways. They certainly couldn’t throw him out. Neither did they dare to
make a great scene about that piano because even they dimly sensed, as I sensed, from so
many thousands of miles away that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life.
But he hadn’t been going to school. One day a letter came from the school board and
Isabel’s mother got it-there had, apparently, been other letters but Sonny had torn them up.
This day, when Sonny came in, Isabel’s mother showed him the letter and asked where he’d
been spending his time. And she finally got it out of him that he’d been down in Greenwich
Village, with musicians and other characters, in a white girls apartment. And this scared her
and she started to scream at him and what came up, once she began-though she denies it
to this day-was what sacrifices they were making to give Sonny a decent home and how little
he appreciated it.
Sonny didn’t play the piano that day. By evening, Isabel’s mother had calmed down but then
there was the old man to deal with, and Isabel herself. Isabel says she did her best to be
calm but she broke down and started crying. She says she just watched Sonny’s face. She
could tell, by watching him, what was happening with him. And what was happening was that
they penetrated his cloud, they had reached him. Even if their fingers had been times more
gentle than human fingers ever are, he could hardly help feeling that they had stripped him
naked and were spitting on that nakedness. For he also had to see that his presence, that
music, which was life or death to him, had been torture for them and that they had endured
it, not at all for his sake but only for mine. And Sonny couldn’t take that. He can take it a little
better today than he could then but he’s still not very good at it and, frankly, I don’t know
anybody who is.
The silence of the next few days must have been louder than the sound of all the music ever
played since time began. One morning, before she went to work, Isabel was in his room for
something and she suddenly realized that all of his records were gone. And she knew for
certain that he was gone. And he was. He went as far as the navy would carry him. He finally
sent me a postcard from some place in Greece and that was the first I knew that Sonny was
still alive. I didn’t see him any more until we were both back in New York and the war had
long been over.
He was a man by then, of course, but I wasn’t willing to see it. He came by the house from
time to time, but we fought almost every time we met. I didn’t like the way he carried
himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed
to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.
Then we had a fight, a pretty awful fight, and I didn’t see him for months. By and by I looked
him up, where he was living, in a furnished room in the Village, and I tried to make it up. But
there were lots of other people in the room and Sonny just lay on his bed, and he wouldn’t
come downstairs with me, and he treated these other people as though they were his family
and I weren’t. So I got mad and then he got mad, and then I told him that he might just as
well be dead as live the way he was living. Then he stood up and he told me not to worry
about him any more in life, that he was dead as far as I was concerned. Then he pushed me
to the door and the other people looked on as though nothing were happening, and he
slammed the door behind me. I stood in the hallway, staring at the door. I heard somebody
laugh in the room and then the tears came to my eyes. I started down the steps, whistling to
keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself. You going to need me, baby, one of these cold,
I read about Sonny’s trouble in the spring. Little Grace died in the fall. She was a beautiful
little girl. But she only lived a little over two years. She died of polio and she suffered. She
had a slight fever for a couple of days, but it didn’t seem like anything and we just kept her
in bed. And we would certainly have called the doctor, but the fever dropped, she seemed to
be all right. So we thought it had just been a cold. Then, one day, she was up, playing, Isabel
was in the kitchen fixing lunch for the two boys when they’d come in from school, and she
heard Grace fall down in the living room. When you have a lot of children you don’t always
start running when one of them falls, unless they start screaming or something. And, this
time, Gracie was quiet. Yet, Isabel says that when she heard that thump and then that
silence, something happened to her to make her afraid. And she ran to the living room and
there was little Grace on the floor, all twisted up, and the reason she hadn’t screamed was
that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel
says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams.
Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangling sound and I have to be
quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a
I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried. I was sitting in the
living room in the dark, by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his
One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or anyway, been in our house,
for nearly two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking
from a can of beer, and trying to work up courage to search Sonny’s room. He was out, he
was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their
grandparents. Suddenly I was standing still in front of the living room window, watching
Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny’s room made me still. I scarcely dared to
admit to myself what I’d be searching for. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found it. Or if I didn’t.
On the sidewalk across from me, near the entrance to a barbecue joint, some people were
holding an old-fashioned revival meeting. The barbecue cook, wearing a dirty white apron,
his conked hair reddish and metallic in the pale sun, and a cigarette between his lips, stood
in the doorway, watching them. Kids and older people paused in their errands and stood
there, along with some older men and a couple of very tough-looking women who watched
everything that happened on the avenue, as though they owned it, or were maybe owned by
it. Well, they were watching this, too. The revival was being carried on by three sisters in
black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. The
brother was testifying and while he testified two of the sisters stood together, seeming to
say, amen, and the third sister walked around with the tambourine outstretched and a
couple of people dropped coins into it. Then the brother’s testimony ended and the sister
who had been taking up the collection dumped the coins into her palm and transferred them
to the pocket of her long black robe. Then she raised both hands, striking the tambourine
against the air, and then against one hand, and she started to sing. And the two other
sisters and the brother joined in.
It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these meetings all my life. So,
of course, had everybody else down there. Yet, they paused and watched and listened and I
stood still at the window. “‘Tis the old ship of Zion,” they sang, and the sister with the
tambourine kept a steady, jangling beat, “it has rescued many a thousand!” Not a soul under
the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been
rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them.
Neither did they especially believe in the holiness of the three sisters and the brother, they
knew too much about them, knew where they lived, and how. The woman with the
tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by
very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped
lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her
black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely,
they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister. As the singing filled the air
the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within;
the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away
from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first
condition, while dreaming of their last. The barbecue cook half shook his head and smiled,
and dropped his cigarette and disappeared into his joint. A man fumbled in his pockets for
change and stood holding it in his hand impatiently, as though he had just remembered a
pressing appointment further up the avenue. He looked furious. Then I saw Sonny, standing
on the edge of the crowd. He was carrying a wide, flat notebook with a green cover, and it
made him look, from where I was standing, almost like a schoolboy. The coppery sun
brought out the copper in his skin, he was very faintly smiling, standing very still. Then the
singing stopped, the tambourine turned into a collection plate again. The furious man
dropped in his coins and vanished, so did a couple of the women, and Sonny dropped some
change in the plate, looking directly at the woman with a little smile. He started across the
avenue, toward the house. He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem
hipsters walk, only he’s imposed on this his own half-beat. I had never really noticed it
I stayed at the window, both relieved and apprehensive. As Sonny disappeared from my
sight, they began singing again. And they were still singing when his key turned in the lock.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself. You want some beer?”
“No. Well, maybe.” But he came up to the window and stood beside me, looking out. “What a
warm voice,” he said.
They were singing If I could only hear my mother pray again!
“Yes,” I said, “and she can sure beat that tambourine.”
“But what a terrible song,” he said, and laughed. He dropped his notebook on the sofa and
disappeared into the kitchen. “Where’s Isabel and the kids?”
“I think they want to see their grandparents. You hungry?”
“No.” He came back into the living room with his can of beer. “You want to come some place
with me tonight?”
I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no. “Sure. Where?”
He sat down on the sofa and picked up his notebook and started leafing through it. “I’m
going to sit in with some fellows in a joint in the Village.”
“You mean, you’re going to play, tonight?”
“That’s right.” He took a swallow of his beer and moved back to the window. He gave me a
sidelong look. “If you can stand it.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
He smiled to himself and we both watched as the meeting across the way broke up. The
three sisters and the brother, heads bowed, were singing God be with you till we meet again.
The faces around them were very quiet. Then the song ended. The small crowd dispersed.
We watched the three women and the lone man walk slowly up the avenue.
“When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of
what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and
cool at the same time. And distant. And- and sure.” He sipped his beer, very deliberately not
looking at me. I watched his face. “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to
have that feeling.”
“Do you?” I sat down slowly in the easy chair.
“Sometimes.” He went to the sofa and picked up his notebook again. “Some people do.”
“In order,” I asked, “to play?” And my voice was very ugly, full of contempt and anger.
“Well”-he looked at me with great, troubled eyes, as though, in fact, he hoped his eyes would
tell me things he could never otherwise say-“they think so. And if they think so-!”
“And what do you think?” I asked.
He sat on the sofa and put his can of beer on the floor. “I don’t know,” he said, and I couldn’t
be sure if he were answering my question or pursuing his thoughts. His face didn’t tell me.
“It’s not so much to play. It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level.” He frowned
and smiled: “In order to keep from shaking to pieces.”
“But these friends of yours,” I said, “they seem to shake themselves to pieces pretty
“Maybe.” He played with the notebook. And something told me that I should curb my tongue,
that Sonny was doing his best to talk, that I should listen. “But of course you only know the
ones that’ve gone to pieces. Some don’t-or at least they haven’t yet and that’s just about all
any of us can say.” He paused. “And then there are some who just live, really, in hell, and
they know it and they see what’s happening and they go right on. I don’t know.” He sighed,
dropped the notebook, folded his arms. “Some guys, you can tell from the way they play,
they on something all the time. And you can see that, well, it makes something real for them.
But of course,” he picked up his beer from the floor and sipped it and put the can down
again, “they want to, too, you’ve got to see that. Even some of them that say they don’t-
some, not all.”
“And what about you?” I asked-I couldn’t help it. “What about you? Do you want to?”
He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed.
“Me,” he said. Then: “While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman
sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through-to
sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.”
I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer-is there. Sonny?”
“I believe not,” he said and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked
at me. “Has it?” I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever,
beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence-so long!-when he
had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. “No, there’s no way
not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it,
and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering
for it. You know?” I said nothing. “Well you know,” he said, impatiently, “why do people
suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.”
“But we just agreed,” I said, “that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to-take
“But nobody just takes it,” Sonny cried, “that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to.
You’re just hung up on the way some people try-it’s not your way!”
The hair on my face began to itch, my face felt wet. “That’s not true,” I said, “that’s not true. I
don’t give a damn what other people do, I don’t even care how they suffer. I just care how
you suffer.” And he looked at me. “Please believe me,” I said, “I don’t want to see you-die-
trying not to suffer.”
“I won’t,” he said flatly, “die trying not to suffer. At least, not any faster than anybody else.”
“But there’s no need,” I said, trying to laugh, “is there? in killing yourself.”
I wanted to say more, but 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; but was it? or, rather, wasn’t that exactly
the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have
sounded-empty words and lies.
So I made the promise to myself and prayed that I would keep it.
“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets,
black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing
shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out- that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t
make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s
listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”
And then he walked away from the window and sat on the sofa again, as though all the wind
had suddenly been knocked out of him. “Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your
mother’s throat.” He laughed and looked at me. “Or your brother’s.” Then he sobered. “Or
your own.” Then: “Don’t worry. I’m all right now and I think I’ll be all right. But I can’t forget-
where I’ve been. I don’t mean just the physical place I’ve been, I mean where I’ve been. And
what I’ve been.”
“What have you been, Sonny?” I asked.
He smiled-but sat sideways on the sofa, his elbow resting on the back, his fingers playing
with his mouth and chin, not looking at me. “I’ve been something I didn’t recognize, didn’t
know I could be. Didn’t know anybody could be.” He stopped, looking inward, looking
helplessly young, looking old. “I’m not talking about it now because I feel guilty or anything
like that-maybe it would be better if I did, I don’t know. Anyway, I can’t really talk about it. Not
to you, not to anybody,” and now he turned and faced me. “Sometimes, you know, and it was
actually when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I
could play or I didn’t really have to play, it just came out of me, it was there. And I don’t know
how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to
people. Or it wasn’t that I did anything to them-it was that they weren’t real.” He picked up
the beer can; it was empty; he rolled it between his palms: “And other times-well, I needed a
fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen-and I couldn’t find it,
and I-went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible for me.” He began pressing the
beer can between his hands, I watched the metal begin to give. It glittered, as he played with
it like a knife, and I was afraid he would cut himself, but I said nothing. “Oh well. I can never
tell you. I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and
shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink, and I thought I’d die if I couldn’t get away from
it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking me in with it. And
I didn’t know,” he paused, still flattening the beer can, “I didn’t know, I still don’t know,
something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink, but I didn’t think
that that was what I’d been trying to do- and-who can stand it?” and he abruptly dropped the
ruined beer can, looking at me with a small, still smile, and then rose, walking to the window
as though it were the lodestone rock. I watched his face, he watched the avenue. “I couldn’t
tell you when Mama died-but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away
from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from-really. When I came
back, nothing had changed I hadn’t changed I was just-older.” And he stopped, drumming
with his fingers on the windowpane. The sun had vanished, soon darkness would fall. I
watched his face. “It can come again,” he said, almost as though speaking to himself. Then
he turned to me. “It can come again,” he repeated. “I just want you to know that.”
“All right,” I said, at last. “So it can come again. All right.”
He smiled, but the smile was sorrowful. “I had to try to tell you,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand that.”
“You’re my brother,” he said, looking straight at me, and not smiling at all.
“Yes,” I repeated, “yes. I understand that.”
He turned back to the window, looking out. “All that hatred down there,” he said, “all that
hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”
We went to the only nightclub on a short, dark street, downtown. We squeezed through the
narrow, chattering, jampacked bar to the entrance of the big room, where the bandstand
was. And we stood there for a moment for the lights were very dim in this room and we
couldn’t see. Then, “Hello, boy ” said the voice and an enormous black man, much older than
Sonny or myself, erupted out of all that atmospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny’s
shoulder. “I been sitting right here,” he said, “waiting for you.”
He had a big voice, too, and heads in the darkness turned toward us.
Sonny grinned and pulled a little away, and said, “Creole, this is my brother. I told you about
Creole shook my hand. “I’m glad to meet you, son,” he said and it was clear that he was glad
to meet me there, for Sonny’s sake. And he smiled, “You got a real musician in your family,”
and he took his arm from Sonny’s shoulder and slapped him, lightly, affectionately, with the
back of his hand.
“Well. Now I’ve heard it all,” said a voice behind us. This was another musician, and a friend
of Sonny’s, a coal-black, cheerful-looking man built close to the ground. He immediately
began confiding to me, at the top of his lungs, the most terrible things about Sonny, his
teeth gleaming like a lighthouse and his laugh coming up out of him like the beginning of an
earthquake. And it turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone-
some were musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangers-
on, and some were there to hear Sonny play. I was introduced to all of them and they were
all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in
Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore
They were going to play soon and Creole installed me, by myself, at a table in a dark corner.
Then I watched them, Creole, and the little black man and Sonny, and the others, while they
horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light from the bandstand spilled just
a little short of them and watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the
feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light
too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would
perish in flame. Then, while I watched, one of them, the small black man, moved into the
light and crossed the bandstand and started fooling around with his drums. Then-being
funny and being, also, extremely ceremonious- Creole took Sonny by the arm and led him to
the piano. A woman’s voice called Sonny’s name and a few hands started clapping. And
Sonny, also being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he could have
cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to
his heart and bowed from the waist.
Creole then went to the bass fiddle and a lean, very bright-skinned brown man jumped up on
the bandstand and picked up his horn. So there they were, and the atmosphere on the
bandstand and in the room began to change and tighten. Someone stepped up to the
microphone and announced them. Then there were all kinds of murmurs. Some people at
the bar shushed others. The waitress ran around, frantically getting in the last orders, guys
and chicks got closer to each other, and the lights on the bandstand, on the quartet, turned
to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there. Creole looked about him for the last
time, as though he were making certain that all his chickens were in the coop, and then he-
jumped and struck the fiddle. And there they were.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare
occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or
hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But 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. And his triumph, when
he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working
hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand
was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch
Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up
there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed,
he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with
Sonny. He 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. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on
the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.
And, while Creole listened, 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 his
instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make
it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and
wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. 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.
And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And 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. 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.
Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that
something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered
applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was
almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play.
Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said
something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn
insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now
and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again,
and 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. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with
him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.
Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He
hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and
deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were
all about. They were not about anything very new. 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. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only
light we’ve got in all this darkness.
And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has
another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed
to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums
know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny
in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air
with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them
seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained
so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat
statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very
beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with
what burning he had made it his, and 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. Yet, there was
no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go
through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew
only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that,
passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first
time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the
moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and
carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own
tears begin to rise. And 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.
Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning.
There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I
asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up
there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the
piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he
sipped from it and looked toward me, and 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.