Going to Meet the Man

by James Baldwin

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What is the literary element or device in James Baldwin's short story, "Going to Meet the Man"?

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Baldwin employs irony in his characterization of Jesse, the main character. Jesse thinks of black people as animals, savages, and yet his own attitude and his memories of watching a lynching as a child show that it is Jesse himself, and the other whites, who are the real animals, the true savages. They act without humanity. In the end of the story, this is made clear when Jesse lets out a sound that falls somewhere "between a high laugh and a howl"; animals like dogs or wolves howl—it is certainly a word that draws attention to Jesse's animal nature. Even the fact that Jesse is sexually aroused by violence, first by the violence he did to the young black man in the jail and, later, by the memory of the lynching he attended with his family as a child, seem to characterize him as inhuman. The irony here is that Jesse believes that he is civilized, even admirable, thinking of black people as animals, and he gets it completely backward. The black people he knows act more civilized, more human, and with more humanity, than he ever does.

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The literary element or device used in James Baldwin's short story, "Going to Meet the Man" is flashback.

Flashback is a literary device used to provide information to the reader by returning to an earlier time. Flashback allows the author to interrupt the story's flow to provide essential information for better understanding of a character or a conflict.

A method of narration in which present action is temporarily interrupted so that the reader can witness past events--usually in the form of a character's memories, dreams, narration, or even authorial commentary...

The story begins with Jesse, a bigoted, white, deputy sheriff who is trying to recount to his wife an event of that day whereby he beat a civil rights leader badly. Jesse feels threatened by the black society and hatred for the race. He feels that his world is out of control as he watches the changes taking place in the society around him, in particular, the struggle for blacks to earn the right to vote.

Whereas he feels he is justified in his actions, a song—a black spiritual—returns Jesse to an event in the past that has scarred him, perhaps for life. As a child, in an atmosphere of "entertainment," he and his family "go on a picnic" to watch a black man (accused of raping a white woman), publicly castrated, burned and mutilated. The boy sees this moment through the eyes of his parents. His mother has a look of rapture on her face; his father earns his love and respect because he had:

...carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.

In this moment, the child Jesse was believed he was experiencing the "greatest joy of his life." However, the experience has left him angry and paranoid; his identity as a man is linked to the murder of another man: steeped in hatred and brutality. It is the flashback that allows us to see why Jesse is so impotent, not only sexually with his wife, Grace, but also in terms of his ability to be a decent human being. The flashback brings information to the forefront of Jesse's brain, allowing that perhaps seeing this memory from a different place in his life, that he may well be salvageable—better able to understand the suffering and pain he experiences as an adult, based upon this horrific experience from his childhood. This knowledge may allow him to escape the damage done to him as a child.

If freedom is an escape from one's inheritance, the story offers on assurance that such escape is possible.

 

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