Last Updated on October 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528
Over the course of a long, sleepless night spent in angry reminiscence, James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” chronicles the harrowing transformation of a young white boy playing with a Black friend into a racist adult whose responsibilities as a sheriff’s deputy appear to consist largely of oppressing and abusing Black Americans. The story begins as Jesse, the adult deputy, lies in bed with his wife. He tells her of a situation at work that became violent. Later, he implies that the volume of non-locals arriving in town from nearby cities and universities means there will be an even larger pro-civil rights demonstration the next day.
They could be coming from anywhere, from out of state most likely, and they would be at the courthouse tomorrow. The n------ were getting ready. Well, they would be ready, too . . .
And he was a good man, a God-fearing man, he had tried to do his duty all his life, and he had been a deputy sheriff for several years.
Jesse spends much of the night tossing and turning with quiet rage and bitterness, seething and tossing racist slurs around in his mind. Later, Baldwin contrasts the intensely racist ideology that has consumed the man with his childhood, allowing a memory from many years ago to bubble to the surface. Jesse recalls another large gathering which, at the time, he did not understand. Alongside his parents and the other white townspeople, he attends a public lynching. As an eight-year-old, Jesse did not understand what was happening, asking his father:
“Where are we going? Are we going on a picnic?”
The scene exists in stark contrast to the image of Jesse that Baldwin provides at the story’s beginning. He is innocent and clueless about the violence to come; moreover, his best friend is a young Black boy named Otis. The visceral imagery of the lynching Jesse is exposed to reveals that racism is taught and not an innate feature. Through the story, readers see Jesse as an adult, transformed from a child posing innocent questions into an adult steeped in the racist and violent values of his social context. Hatred, Baldwin explains, is contagious. When Jesse sees the hanged man, he experiences a complex set of emotions, thinking the man’s body is
the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen. One of his father’s friends reached up and in his hands he held a knife: and Jesse wished that he had been that man.
As Jesse’s internal monologue indicates, racism and prejudice have nuanced connotations for those in power. While these values create a sense of hierarchy and superiority, they also invite fear and insecurity into the hearts of those at the top of the hierarchy. They, like Jesse, see the vulnerability of their position; they know their power is contingent on the continued subservience of the oppressed. When oppressed groups refuse to cooperate, the oppressors feel helpless and incapable of exerting the dominance to which they feel entitled. Violence, then, is the only solution, a lesson Jesse learned early while watching the man who wielded a long, silver knife against his helpless victim.