Going to Meet the Man

by James Baldwin

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Last Updated on October 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

"Going to Meet the Man" was published in 1965 by James Baldwin, an African-American author writing extensively across genres and focused heavily on the themes of race, identity, social roles, and the struggle for self-knowledge. The titular story from his collection Going to Meet the Man is no different. However, the narrator, an unreliable and unlikable racist cop living and working in a small Southern town, strays from Baldwin’s traditional choice of perspective. Baldwin was an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and his work reflects these values. 

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The story takes place in the South and bears the heavy burden of its racist history; the characters and their values align with the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that legally permitted racial segregation, prejudice, and unequal treatment. While the story was published in 1965—the year of the Civil Rights Act, which struck down the legality of Jim Crow discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act, which enfranchised every American citizen—Baldwin does not specify when in the Civil Rights Movement the story takes place. However, his inclusion of the character Big Jim C., a loosely veiled allusion to Jim Crow, overtly ties the narrative to the era. 

Regardless, the story faithfully replicates the tumultuous and often horrifically violent context of the effort for legal equality. Baldwin’s blunt, bruising prose pulls no punches, jarring readers with the overt violence as well as the narrator’s perverse fascination, which borders on attraction, with the mutilation and destruction of Black bodies. His writing lacks the musicality and subtle turns often lauded in short stories. Instead, he favors harsh imagery and clear commentary to reveal the truth of the narrator’s prejudiced interiority and, more broadly, the widespread brutality of the American South. Complex metaphors and similes find no footing in his straightforward telling, although harsh language and slurs litter the pages. Baldwin’s story is most successful in its realism, imbued with the force of personal experience and the urgent desire for change. 

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The choice of narrator offers a fascinating reversal of such stories, which most frequently occur through the first-person suffering of Black Americans subjected to violence and discrimination. By focusing the narrative on the foggy gaze of Jesse, a white police officer who is no stranger to causing the aforementioned violence and discrimination, Baldwin seeks insight into the minds of the perpetrators, asking: Why do they act this way? Why is equality such a threat? Unsurprisingly, the answer he builds to is deeply psychological; indeed, it is almost Freudian. The Southern self, he argues, is rooted in the taught belief in the white man’s superiority. To erode this sense of dominance removes a critical bastion of meaning that defines who the white Southern man is and disrupts his familiar sociocultural conventions. 

As Jesse and those like him see their hold over their Black neighbors begin to loosen, they draw inward, isolating themselves from a changing world they do not understand. This change shakes them to their core, forcing them to reevaluate their place in the world. Moreover, as Jesse’s restlessness indicates, this sense of unease permeates their entire being, inhibiting him from maintaining an erection or having sex with his wife. It is as if the white mind is obsessed with the Black body, seeing it as an indicator of their social—and sexual—prowess. 

Baldwin was a strong believer in the idea white Americans had trapped themselves in a cage of their own making: their false notions of superiority left them empty of other means of self-definition, and, when times began to change and the Jim Crow dynamic of legal discrimination was overturned, they were left empty and uncertain. The story is a portrait of contemporary roles and the complex rules that guided them, as Baldwin seeks to decode the reasons guiding the actions of the perpetrators of Southern racism and violence. 

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