Life in Harlem is so hard that all who live there need an escape in order to deal with the despair of their life there. In "Sonny's Blues” by James Baldwin, we are introduced into a family that is struggling against poverty, racism, and substance abuse. Sonny, the main character is trying to find a way to live in Harlem through two escapes; heroin and music. Through their eyes, we get a glimpse of a life that sucks down all who grow up in it and only relinquishes them with reluctance, and never without leaving some part of that person behind. We are introduced to a few of the trials that Sonny and his family have faced. Through Sonny and his friends, we see the drug abuse that plagues Harlem's children. Sonny also shows us what incarceration does to a family when he goes to jail for drug dealing. Sonny's father dies due to alcoholism and segregation, both of which limit the potential of those who live in Harlem. Lastly, through Sonny's brother, we are shown death which pulls down on a family and is difficult to recover from. Through Sonny, we are sympathetic to these trials that we see through the whole book and we see that Sonny uses heroin to stand the suffering and hopelessness around him even though it is harmful to him.
Harlem life is filled with dangers like the ones in the paragraph above, but it is not only a danger to the body; (like the examples above were,) it is also a danger to the mind. The narrator and his brother, Sonny, are driving past the decrepit houses on their way home and the narrator describes the streets saying: "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.” (p. 8) He uses the word "smothering.” The people living in Harlem are filled with a sense of frustration and despair because they will always be from Harlem, even if they leave.