Throughout “Going to Meet the Man,” singing symbolizes communal power and strength. This symbol is introduced near the beginning of the story when Jesse tells Grace about his day at work, how he was tasked with making Black civil rights protestors in jail stop their coordinated singing. Jesse targets the protest leader, asking him to tell the others to stop singing, but, despite being tortured almost to death, the man refuses, showing how the protestors are intentionally using song to maintain their power in the face of oppression.
Later, after moving through rage at the protestors’ refusal, Jesse reflects on other times he has heard Black people sing, specifically recalling singers who he felt were asking for mercy from God. Historically speaking, throughout slavery and Jim Crow, Black Americans used spirituals to connect with each other and stay strong in the face of extreme racial violence.
Singing returns near the end of the story as Jesse is reflecting on how white people are losing the race war and, suddenly, the lyrics of a Black spiritual pop into his mind. He remembers hearing the song coming over the fields the night before witnessing a lynching as a child, how his father suggested they were singing for the man about to be killed. Again, in the face of violence, Black characters use song to express their feelings and stay strong. The following day, a young Jesse hears cars and cars of white people singing on their way to witness the lynching, a symbol of the power white people held at the time.
Singing Quotes in Going to Meet the Man
“They had this line you know, to register”—he laughed, but she did not—“and they wouldn’t stay where Big Jim C. wanted them, no, they had to start blocking traffic all around the court house so couldn’t nothing or nobody get through, and Big Jim C. told them to disperse and they wouldn’t move, they just kept up that singing, and Big Jim C. figured that the others would move if this nigger would move, him being the ring-leader, but he wouldn’t move and he wouldn’t let the others move, so they had to beat him and a couple of the others and they threw in the wagon…”
He began to tremble with what he believed was rage, sweat, both cold and hot, raced down his body, the singing filled him as though it were a weird, uncontrollable, monstrous howling rumbling up from the depths of his own belly, he felt an icy fear rise in him and raise him up, and he shouted, he howled, “You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while—your women! Here’s what I got for all the black bitches in the world—!” Then he was, abruptly, almost too weak to stand; to his bewilderment, his horror, beneath his own fingers, he felt himself violently stiffen—with no warning at all…
Their friends, in other cars, stretched up the road as far as he could see; other cars had joined them; there were cars behind them. They were singing. The sun seemed, suddenly, very hot, and he was, at once very happy and a little afraid. He did not quite understand what was happening, and he did not know what to ask—he had no one to ask. He had grown accustomed, for the solution of such mysteries, to go to Otis. He felt that Otis knew everything. But he could not ask Otis about this.