From Going to Meet the Man
America was forged in the cauldron of racism. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow, from the Dred Scott case to the doctrine of separate but equal; from Emmett Till to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and on down through Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland; from Watts and the Rodney King riots to Charlottesville in 2017, the U.S. has seethed with the spasmodic currents of racial animus.
Few writers, speakers, or thinkers have addressed this agonizing history more lucidly or more honestly than James Baldwin. “The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its Black population,” Baldwin wrote in his memoir of the 1960s civil rights movement, No Name in the Street. “Americans will, of course, deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like ‘the final solution’ – those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days.” Baldwin was better than most at observing the way his country goes and his literary output stands as a sharp rebuke to a bloodstained, fractious national history.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the title story of his 1965 short fiction collection. A psychologically incisive examination of a rabidly racist cop in the American South during the height of the civil rights era, “Going to Meet the Man” retains every ounce of its power to shock and appall its reader, thanks in large part to Baldwin’s absolute refusal to reserve any detail about the horrors inflicted upon the Black male bodies in the story. A civil rights worker who has been locked up for helping Blacks register to vote is mercilessly tortured while in police custody and the story culminates in one of the most graphic and vicious lynching scenes ever to appear in a work of American fiction.
At the centre of the story is Jesse, a white cop who has risen in the ranks to become deputy sheriff. The setting is never made explicit, though references to Big Jim C. indicate the story likely takes place in Alabama. Jim Clark was sheriff of Dallas County during the 1960s; he was a dedicated segregationist who regularly employed violence and intimidation to prevent Blacks from achieving any civil rights gains and was one of the key figures behind the “Bloody Sunday” assaults on marchers from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. In Baldwin’s story, Big Jim C. (the name is also a sly allusion to Jim Crow) beats up a Black civil rights organizer who is helping register other Blacks to vote. At the jail, Jesse further assaults the man with a cattle prod in a scene that is brutal and degrading, but only a shadow of the violence yet to come.
Baldwin’s tactic in the story is to maintain a close identification between the reader and Jesse, which results in a highly uncomfortable fictional experience. Jesse is an unrepentant bigot who uses his position as cover for inflicting violence and coercing sex out of women he targets when he can’t find satisfaction with his wife, Grace: “Sometimes, sure, like any other man, he knew that he wanted a little more spice than Grace could give him and he would drive over yonder and pick up a Black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing.”
Jesse’s race hatred is inextricably intertwined with his masculinity and, in particular, his sexual prowess. As the story opens, Jesse is in bed with Grace, having failed to achieve an erection. “Excitement filled him like a toothache,” we are told, “but it refused to enter his flesh.” Frustrated by his inability to perform, Jesse longs for a Black woman from whom he might feel comfortable soliciting oral sex; he can’t bring himself to ask his white wife to do this because, it is implied, she would find the act demeaning. “The image of a Black girl caused a distant excitement in him, like a far-away light; but, again, the excitement was more like a pain; instead of forcing him to act, it made action impossible.”
The conflation of sex and pain here is the first indication of some pathological disorder at work in Jesse, though the precise nature of this pathology will only become clear in the fullness of the story’s unfolding. The policeman’s conflicted sexuality, we discover, has deeply embedded roots that reach back to his childhood, when he was forced to listen to his parents having sex in the adjoining room of their tiny homestead. Hearing his parents copulate – the squeak of the bed, his father’s cajoling voice – the child Jesse feels an indefinable shame: “He put his head under the blanket, then pushed his head out again, for fear, staring at the dark window.” Jesse’s father is both the source of his sexual hang-ups and the wellspring of his racism, two aspects of the adult Jesse’s character that will remain inseparable.
The day after the eight-year-old Jesse eavesdrops on his parents, his father takes him and his mother to witness the lynching of a Black man, something presented to the young child in festive, carnivalesque terms. “Where are we going,” the young boy asks his father. “Are we going on a picnic?” The father’s gleeful response: “We’re going on a picnic. You won’t ever forget this picnic.”
The assertion proves prophetic. Not only does Jesse never forget what he witnesses, the experience imprints itself so indelibly on his impressionable child’s mind that it informs his attitudes and preoccupations for the rest of his life. The boy’s initial confusion and uncertainty at seeing the Black man chained by his wrists to a tree gives way to euphoria: “He began to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watched the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then. 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.” (Note also the implied homoeroticism here: another aspect of Jesse’s sexuality he keeps submerged and unacknowledged.) In this way, monsters are forged out of innocent children.
The apogee of horror in Baldwin’s story occurs when the unidentified Black man is castrated and set on fire by the white mob. (The reason they attack this particular Black man is left unspecified in the story: Baldwin’s point, we come to understand, is that it hardly matters why the crowd does what it does.) The castration makes explicit white men’s fear of inadequacy in the face of Black male sexuality; Baldwin underscores this by having Jesse notice how well endowed the captive man is compared to his father. Moreover, the boy’s own reaction to the violence is explicitly sexual: “Jesse felt his scrotum tighten.”
When the story flashes back to the present, Jesse finds the memory of the lynching sufficient to produce in him the charge of sexual excitement he was missing earlier, though he can only perform by repeatedly referring to Grace with a highly derogatory racist epithet. The moonlight shining in through the window, we are told, “had now grown cold as ice,” and Jesse’s loveless coupling is presented not as something pleasant, but as a task to be worked through: “he laboured and she moaned … he laboured harder than he ever had before.” There is something both pathetic and terrible in Jesse’s appearance at the closing moments of the story; the deep sense of unease is exacerbated by his thoughts straying to the day ahead, when the cycle of violence will continue to perpetuate itself.
The other inescapable aspect of Jesse’s character, of course, is his status as deputy sheriff – a duly appointed representative of institutional law and order. In his occupation, he is emblematic of the internalization and endorsement of systemic racism on the part of American society – he is, in 1960s countercultural terms, “the Man.” At the same time, Baldwin’s title also refers to the man Jesse and his parents go to see being brutalized at the hands of their white compatriots; by conflating these two meanings, the title of the story extends and deepens the critique of America’s racial discord. If “Going to Meet the Man” is an attempt by Baldwin to navigate “the vast, private hinterland of the American heart” through a precise observation of “the way the country goes these days,” it is not terribly salutary to consider the ongoing contemporary relevance of this distressing, frequently horrific snapshot of a nation at war with itself.