What is the impact of using Jesse as a narrator in "Going to Meet the Man" by James Baldwin?
The impact of using Jesse as the narrator is stunning. Through Jesse's narrative, Baldwin reveals how a warped consciousness is formed and maintained.
At the beginning of the story, Jesse finds himself in an embarrassing position when he makes sexual advances towards Grace, his sleepy wife. At only forty-two, he knows that he is far from impotent; yet, he fails to maintain his arousal. Jesse surmises that his overwhelming need to get even has quenched his sexual desire.
Jesse is a deputy sheriff, and he resents the fact that black Americans are registering to vote en masse. He relates how he manhandled and tasered Big Jim C, one of the African-American ringleaders responsible for the blockade in front of the courthouse. Jesse voices his distaste for the black demonstrators; their look and smell disgust him. His aesthetic critique is filled with racist undertones; to Jesse, the demonstrators are no more than animals and are unfit to coexist with their white neighbors.
Jesse expresses his aversion to black women while secretly harboring a fascination towards them. To ease his mental torment, he resorts to spewing racial insults. At the same time, Jesse is horrified and bewildered when he becomes aroused after defending the idea of sexual communion between white men and black women. In using Jesse as the narrator, Baldwin highlights the schizophrenic mental conflict that threatens to unravel the white psyche.
Through Jesse, Baldwin also addresses the prevailing attitudes regarding white superiority. Jesse sees himself as a protector and a God-fearing man: "He was only doing his duty: Protecting white people from the n***ers and the n***ers from themselves." The most devastating narrative encompasses Jesse's description of a black man's lynching. The black man is tortured, castrated, and burned to death during a grim "picnic." Meanwhile, Jesse finds himself focused on the black man's privates during the castration. In Jesse's mind, the black man's sexuality is pitted against that of the white man during the surreal event.
Jesse's macabre fascination with the details of the castration leaves him mentally scarred. His warped memories will forever link his image of sexual potency to that of brutality. Through Jesse, Baldwin documents the perverted, entrenched preconceptions that destroy peace between white and black Americans.
Baldwin’s decision to tell his story from the point of view of a white deputy foregrounds the psychology behind racial hatred. We understand, from Jesse’s point of view, his fear in confronting the protesting African Americans the next day but that understanding does not translate into sympathy. Jesse is meant to be a despicable character, and Baldwin’s rhetorical choice to let Jesse speak through the story is an effective way of showing how twisted he is. Specifically, we learn from the story that Jesse’s fear of the black activists stems from his past. His fear stems from his experience as a bill collector who would visit black homes and, more potently, from his memory of a lynching his parents took him to when he was small. It is clear from that experience and, in particular, the castration of the chained black man, that Jesse learns a lesson. As his father tells him, “you wasn’t never going to forget this picnic.” Jesse the boy and Jesse the man then respond “I reckon.” Jesse learns from this experience that, whatever sympathy he might have felt for the victim or revulsion he might have had at the violence of the mob, black people are not the same as white people. The castration explicitly dehumanizes the black man being lynched; he is dangerous specifically because of his sexual potency, which the whites now (symbolically) possess. This memory triggers Jesse’s desire for his wife. He tells her, “I’m going to do you like a nigger.” In a way, his lovemaking is another expression of violence.