James Baldwin's short story is a narrative of a series of events in the Jim Crow South that depict the oppressive racial dynamic of that society.
The action is described from the point of view of a white man named Jesse. On a night when he's unable to perform with his wife Grace, he recalls various incidents or encounters between white people, including himself, and the African Americans who live in the same town. As a policeman, Jesse has arrested, beaten and tortured black men involved in protests. He recalls, in a disdainful and bigoted way, his observations of "the way black people live" made during his earlier time as a deliveryman for a mail order service. The prisoner Jesse has just beaten up is a man who, as a child years earlier, had "talked back" to Jesse during a delivery stop when Jesse had referred to his grandmother merely as "Old Julia," instead of by her full name.
In the darkness Jesse meditates about his dislike of black people and even fantasizes about setting fire to their homes. He then recalls a lynching he was taken to see by his parents when he was a young boy. A crowd of white people had gathered to see it as if it were a picnic. A black man who is charged with having "stepped out of line" is castrated, hanged, and burnt to death. When Jesse emerges in the dark night from his memory of the lynching, he awakens his wife and finds that his sexual ability has returned.
Baldwin's story examines sexual insecurity as a kind of metaphor for racial oppression. In the Jim Crow mentality, the African American man was seen as a threat to the dominance exercised by the white man. The horrifying ritualistic act of lynching was meant as a demonstration of this supposed white superiority. All it really demonstrated, however, was the insecurity and fear that racist whites felt about the possibility of losing their power and dominance.
“Going to Meet the Man” divides clearly and purposefully into two parts. In the first half, the main character, Jesse, a white deputy sheriff in a southern town, lies in bed with his wife, Grace, for the first time in memory suffering from insomnia and impotence. James Baldwin catches Jesse on this night at a moment of crisis, which he shares with other white males: The Old South is now history, the blacks are protesting en masse by registering to vote, and a new South that Jesse cannot conceive is about to be born. That he cannot accept what is happening is clear from hints about what he, as deputy sheriff, will be doing the next day to break up the registration. However, his resistance is much more evident in his paranoid reflections about African Americans; what he would like to do is escape from the black world altogether.
Jesse describes to Grace (who is, however, probably sleeping) an incident that took place earlier in the day at the courthouse. To stop the blacks from singing, the sheriff arrested “the ring-leader” and began to beat him senseless. Jesse continued the brutality at the jail, but before falling unconscious, the young black leader reminded him of an incident in their past when he, as a little boy, had defied this white man for showing disrespect toward his grandmother. The memory raises Jesse’s antagonism to an even higher pitch; he wishes to exterminate the black race. He and his fellow whites in the South are “soldiers,” “out-numbered, fighting to save the civilized world.” However, as Baldwin comments, they cannot succeed in organizing because they are, in fact,...
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