Going to Meet the Man Themes
The two main themes in “Going to Meet the Man” are the insecurity of racism and the exploitation of women.
- The insecurity of racism: Baldwin’s main theme is that the sexual insecurity of racist white men in the South is a source of their oppression of and brutality toward Black people.
- The exploitation of women: Jesse essentially treats his wife as an object when the two become intimate, and the story depicts white men as collectively regarding women as property.
Last Updated on October 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596
The Insecurity of Racism
The story unfurls through the eyes of a white policeman in the Jim Crow South. A series of civil rights protests have begun in the town, and the policeman, Jesse, has made many arrests and has beaten and tortured a black man in custody. Jesse recognized the man as one who "stood up" to him as a child years earlier when Jesse had worked as a deliveryman for a mail-order service. Then a boy, he had taken offense when Jesse's referred to his grandmother as "Old Julia" instead of having the respect to use her full name, Mrs. Julia Blossom.
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Jesse's impotence one night with his wife leads him to consider the pressures of his role as a cop during the turmoil of the civil rights movement. He wishes there was some way of eliminating what he sees as the "problem" of "these people," even contemplating setting fire to the homes of the Black residents in town. A dreamlike memory then comes to him of a lynching he witnessed as a child, having been taken to it by his parents with a huge crowd of white people who treated the event as a picnic. He remembers in graphic detail the castration of the Black man, who is hanged and burnt to death. The white man with the knife, before he uses it, holds the victim's genitals in his hand in a manner that is sexual in a horrifying way. Jesse remembers that witnessing this ritualistic mutilation and killing caused him at the time to feel more closely bonded to his father. In the present, when Jesse awakens from his dream, he rouses his wife and makes her have sex with him, his libido restored evidently by the memory of the lynching.
Baldwin's theme is that the sexual insecurity of racist Whites in the South is the main source of their oppression of and brutality toward Black people. The Black man is seen as a threat to the dominance of the white man. When a Black man "steps out of line" concerning white women, whom the white men consider their "possessions," it is seen as a danger not only to white sexual "supremacy" but to the entire segregated system of the old South and the political and economic dominance of white Southerners. More broadly speaking, sexual insecurity operates as a metaphor for the insecurity of the white social system that relies on the subjugation of Black Americans.
The Exploitation of Women
Women are discussed as little more than sex objects in “Going to Meet the Man.” The story begins as the narrator, Jesse, tries to have sex with his wife but fails when he cannot maintain an erection. He blames her for her prudishness, then fantasizes about Black women, whom he views as promiscuous and innately sexual creatures. As he does, he recalls instances in the past where he used his social power as a police officer to arrest Black women and then sexually assault them. Jesse does not look back on his actions with remorse; instead, he recalls these moments with regret and anger, because he no longer feels safe assaulting Black women anymore for fear of retribution. The story ends as he drags his wife by an elbow, waking her from sleep, and forces her to have sex with him. In the sociocultural environment of the Jim Crow South, no woman is safe. Indeed, as Jesse proves, they are little more than objects for pleasure or social status, either assaulted without any hope of justice or kept prisoner by their husbands.