Going to Meet the Man


James Baldwin

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“Going to Meet the Man” takes place in an unnamed town in the American South in the early 1960s. Jesse—a 42-year-old white police officer—is unable to stay erect while having sex with his wife Grace. As she falls asleep, Jesse tells her about his difficult day at work, using racist slurs and degrading language when referring to Black people. He explains how civil rights protestors blocked traffic while standing in line to register to vote, and how, even in the face of arrests from his fellow officer Big Jim C., they refused to move. Jesse’s job was to make the jailed protestors stop singing, so he targeted the protest leader, feeling both disgust and excitement as he tortured the man. Despite nearly passing out, the protestor refused to ask the others to stop singing.

Jesse stops speaking and the story becomes a flashback. The protestor reminds Jesse that they met years ago when Jesse worked for a mail-order business. In another flashback, Jesse remembers meeting the protestor as a boy when coming to collect payment from the boy’s grandmother. The boy subtly chides Jesse for not using his grandmother’s full name (referred to her only as “Old Julia”). Back in the jailhouse, Jesse is full of rage and beats the protestor more aggressively, appalled to find himself sexually aroused. He leaves the cell and thinks about how the times have changed with all of this protesting—Black people used to be agreeable and keep to themselves, while white people used to feel safe and in control.

Back in the present, Jesse suddenly remembers lines from a Black spiritual. In a new flashback, Jesse is an eight-year-old boy driving home with his mother and father, hearing Black people in town singing the song from across the fields. His father suggests that they are singing for an unnamed “him.” The next day, several cars full of white neighbors pull up to Jesse’s house and Jesse’s father asks if “they got him.” The neighbors say yes, laughing, and Jesse’s family joins them on the road to witness the lynching. Jesse asks if they are “going to see the bad nigger—the one that knocked down old Miss Standish?” His mother implies the answer is yes, and Jesse wishes that he could ask his Black friend Otis what was happening, since Otis knew everything.

At their destination, hundreds of excited white people are watching a naked Black man being dropped into a fire while hanging from his hands. At first, Jesse feels the spectators’ delight is “more acrid than smoke,” but, moments later, he begins “to feel a joy he had never felt before.” One of Jesse’s father’s friends castrates the lynching victim and then he is dropped into the fire for the last time. Suddenly Jesse feels deep love for his father, sensing that he carried Jesse through an important test. Back in the present, Jesse finds himself aroused by the memories of watching the lynching and beating the protest leader. Unashamed this time, he has aggressive sex with Grace, whispering, “I’m going to do you like a nigger” and he thinks excitedly of the morning to come.