Going to Meet the Man

by James Baldwin

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Why is the story "Going to Meet the Man" highly sexualized and violent?

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The main theme of Baldwin's story is the link between racism and sexuality. The brutal, violent oppression carried out against black people in the Jim Crow South, Baldwin implies, is a means by which white men attempt to compensate for their own feelings of sexual inferiority and their fear of African Americans.

The story is seen through the eyes of a white man named Jesse. Though Jesse is arguably as racist as anyone else, he is troubled in some sense by the conflict that exists between whites and blacks and the role that he, as a policeman, is tasked with carrying out: arresting and beating up black men. Without understanding or necessarily even caring if there is a solution to all of this, he recognizes on some level that the racial dynamic of his time and place is wrong and immoral—or at least unsustainable.

To an extent, Jesse is analogous to Orwell's persona in "Shooting an Elephant," though he lacks Orwell's insight and sympathy for the people being oppressed. In both cases, a white man feels trapped, compelled to function as a flunky for a ruling class that has created an oppressive, dysfunctional system. Like Orwell, Jesse grasps the futility of white rule.

Jesse's inability to perform with his wife one night is evidently due to his deeply troubled thoughts about this situation and his role in it. He then has a dreamlike memory of a lynching he witnessed as a child. He remembers the man with the knife holding and even caressing the victim's genitals before cutting and killing him. What this symbolizes is the sexualized nature of racist violence, in which white men are punishing blacks simply because they fear the sexuality of black men, the possibility that African American men will "take our women away from us." It's not merely a destructive form of sexual jealousy, but the usual (and age-old) fear of "miscegenation" that motivates this. In the "mixing" of races, whites fear that their own obliteration as a race will occur. The dream about the lynching and Jesse's memories of bonding with his father have the effect of restoring his ability in the present, and he makes his wife have rough sex with him.

The additional implication in the lynching scene, beyond that of sexual fear and envy, is that the lynchers are actually repressed homosexuals. Through violence, the racist whites are apparently finding an outlet by which their societally unacceptable desires can be sublimated.

Baldwin's story revolves around this vortex of sexuality, violence, and racist cruelty; all of these elements are dependent upon one another.

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"Going to Meet the Man" is a short story by James Baldwin, published in 1965 and detailing the connection between violence (here explicitly racial) and sexuality.

In the story, the main character is unable to perform sexually until he is motivated by his violent tendencies. It is learned through his thoughts and speech that he was indoctrinated at an early age by his parents to be racially prejudiced, and that these racist thoughts excite him, spurring his libido.

"Well, I told you," said his father, "you wasn't never going to forget this picnic." His father's face was full of sweat, his eyes were very peaceful. At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.

"I reckon," he said. "I reckon."

Jesse's father took him by the hand and, with his mother a little behind them, talking and laughing with the other women, they walked through the crowd, across the clearing.
(Baldwin, "Going to Meet the Man," 21stcenturysocialism.com)

The man, who had his racial prejudices instilled by his parents, has no doubt in his mind that he is correct. However, since he is unable to perform without feeling that hatred and prejudice, it is clear to the reader that his feelings are both unhealthy and immoral. The story is explicit in its descriptions of the lynching and the violence, as well as the typical language of the era, to contrast with the pseudo-love shown here by the parents; they profess love for their children, and yet perpetuate a society of hate and discrimination. The protagonist cannot understand exactly why his libido is linked to racial hate, but is unable or unwilling to understand it or take steps to alter it. The language of the story, raw and uncensored, elevates the violence beyond simple description, allowing the reader to experience the horrors of a lynching as if personally present.

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Baldwin's story is highly sexualized and violent in that it directly links the ability of Jesse, a white deputy sheriff, to perform sexually to brutality and violence toward black men. At the beginning of the story Jesse lies in bed with his wife, struck by impotence. Unable to sleep, he tells her about an event that happened at the county courthouse earlier that day. As blacks were protesting outside, attempting to register to vote, the sheriff arrested one of the leaders and beat him senseless. Jesse continued to beat him at the jailhouse, but the young man reminds him of an incident in his past when he had defied a white authority figure. Jesse is angry, but nevertheless experiencing a tiny shred of guilt, which, along with anxieties over the fact that the social order he dominated seemed to be collapsing all around him, is what causes his impotence. 

Jesse then recalls another incident from his childhood. The white men of the community were pursuing a black man who was accused of raping a white woman, and Jesse, without really understanding why, is caught up in the excitement. One night, his parents got him out of bed, telling him only that they were going to witness a picnic. Instead they are going to a lynching, and they watch as the accused black man is castrated, mutilated, and burned alive. The story, which relates a pivotal moment in his life, awakens his desire, and his impotence is gone as he tells his wife he is going to have sex with her like a black man. The story thus directly and disturbingly connects white violence toward blacks with sexual impulses.

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