Going to Meet the Man

by James Baldwin

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Going to Meet the Man Summary

Going to Meet the Man” is a 1965 short story by James Baldwin, set in the Jim Crow South.

  • A white police officer, Jesse, experiences impotence with his wife and afterward lies awake meditating on his hatred and abuse of Black people.
  • Jesse vividly recalls a childhood memory of being brought to witness the lynching of a Black man.
  • Jesse’s potency returns to him after he relives this pivotal memory.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Published in James Baldwin’s 1965 short story collection of the same name, “Going to Meet the Man” depicts a racist white police officer’s restless night. The meandering narrative unfolds over a relatively short period, interweaving complex themes, such as the environment of the Jim Crow South and its oppressive racial dynamics, into the police officer’s sleepless musings. Ultimately, “Going to Meet the Man” is a stark reminder of the widespread damage wrought by the lingering vestiges of racism. Baldwin relays this bleak but contemporarily relevant reality in urgent, visceral prose and grotesque, sexually-charged instances of violence, which readers may find uncomfortable or upsetting.

The story begins with dialogue, as Jesse’s wife, Grace, asks: “‘What’s the matter?’” and implies his inability to maintain an erection. Embarrassed, Jesse attempts to laugh it off, but his feelings of humiliation soon turn to rage, which he directs toward the Black residents of his town. He imagines intimacy with a Black woman rather than his wife, a thought that excites and pains him, so he tempers his attraction to Black women by delving into a racist monologue. Laying in bed, frustrated and unsettled, Jesse considers his masculinity. He thinks about his wife’s prudishness and reminisces on the days when he would drive around in his cruiser, arrest Black women, and sexually assault them. Comforted by his misdeeds, which ease his humiliation at his emasculation, Jesse thinks of his interactions with the town’s Black residents. His perception of them is paternalistic and deeply racist, and he peppers his internal monologue with slurs and derogatory language. 

Turning to his half-asleep wife, Jesse begins to speak, telling her about the day's events. There was a line at the courthouse for voter registration, he explains, which blocked traffic and disrupted the townspeople. Black voters lined the streets, singing and stubbornly staying in place, adamant about registering. Big Jim C, another police officer, decided to do something about it and chose a man he imagined was the ringleader. Jesse describes to his now-sleeping wife how Big Jim beat the man and carted him to jail, where Jesse tortured him extensively, almost to death. The man, beaten within an inch of his life, refuses to give in to the officers’ demands to make the collective stop singing. Instead, he makes a demand of his own. Bleeding on the cold floor of the jail cell, the man reminds Jesse of Old Julia, an older Black woman in the community. He tells Jesse that, going forward, the officer will refer to her with the respect she deserves and call her Mrs. Julia Blossom. 

Enraged by the man’s unwillingness to act subservient, Jesse feels consumed by the desire to beat the man to death. As Jesse imagines killing him, the thought of violence makes him feel powerful and superior, filling him with excitement and, to his horror, causing him to become erect. The memory of the beating and the singing leads Jesse to wonder about the nature of the songs, and he briefly grants the Black residents of his town a sense of humanity. He wonders about their God, about their desires, and about their dreams. But, just as soon as he begins to question his racist values, he slips back into the milieu of his Jim Crow-era Southern upbringing. Jesse considers how things are changing, how the Black people he once felt dominant over are now fighting back, and how they have guns and an unyielding desire to disrupt the racist status quo. 

Unsettled, Jesse considers how to solve this problem. He describes the struggle of the other white men in the town...

(This entire section contains 1133 words.)

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to satisfy their sense of superiority; they wish to invade Black neighborhoods, confiscate their weapons, and set their homes on fire. Yet, they know if they chose to do so, things might not turn out as they wished. The world is changing, and white Southerners cannot wrap their heads around the disruptions to the familiar social hierarchy. No longer implicitly dominant, their self-worth, which was contingent on the racist assumption of their superiority, plummets, as Jesse’s has. 

Lyrics to a song float into Jesse’s consciousness; as he attempts to recall their origins, he slips back into a memory, one it appears he had deeply suppressed. He recalls being eight years old and remembers his friend, Otis, a young Black boy his age. As he sinks deeper into memory, Jesse remembers driving home through a dark field with his parents, the sound of singing echoing into the car from outside. Upon arriving home, he climbs into bed, burying his head under the covers to drown out the sounds of his parents being intimate. In the morning, their neighbors bring news that excites Jesse’s father, but he, as a young boy, does not yet understand. 

Jesse remembers following a caravan of neighbors carrying food to what his father called a “picnic.” His memory is tinged with childish confusion and fear, and he recounts his experience with a strange fervor, seeing his parents in a different, monstrous light. He sees a Black man suspended from a tree by a chain tied around his hands. Beneath, a fire blazes, sending smoke into the crowd. The sight is horrific, yet the scene worsens as the man is castrated, inciting the crowd and sparking a frenzy of violence. They descend on his body, mutilating him beyond recognition. As he dies, the man looks Jesse in the eyes, a glance that forever changes him. 

The memory acts as a catalyst, marking the moment in which Jesse’s racist ideology of dominance and insecurity was cemented. Tying racism, violence, and perverse sexuality together, his sense of self is inextricably tied to the vision of the ritualistic lynching and the amalgam of complex feelings it ignited in him. Thinking of this first experience of racially-motivated violence and all its subsequent instances, Jesse grabs his wife and looks at her with reawakened vigor. Throughout the story, the narrator does not change at all. His racist feelings do not diminish, however, readers learn of their complex origins. 

“Going to Meet the Man” examines sexual insecurity as a metaphor for understanding racial oppression. Jesse sees the burgeoning agency of Black people as a threat to his social dominance but also his sexual dominance. Instances of violence reaffirm his feelings of comfortable superiority, making him feel powerful and reaffirming his masculinity. The story uncovers the insecurity and fear that oppressors feel, detailing the effects that racism has on those worried about losing their power and dominance. Indeed, the story is deeply psychological in its attempt to unravel the roots of racism in white Southerners and understand where and why it evolved as it existed during the Jim Crow era.

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