Throughout “Going to Meet the Man,” Jesse responds resentfully to the gains of the civil rights movement. While lying in bed next to his sleeping wife, he remembers the excitement of jailing and beating a young Black civil rights protest leader, reflects on how white people have lost the camaraderie and sense of ease they had before the civil rights movement began, and thinks fondly of witnessing a brutal lynching as a child. After becoming aroused by these memories, Jesse has sex with his wife Grace, thinking of the new day to come. Despite Jesse’s optimism at the end of the story, Baldwin is careful to establish that Jesse—and other Southern whites like him—are fighting a losing battle; the progress of the civil rights movement cannot be stopped.
On the surface of the story, it seems like Jesse, as a white male police officer, has all of the power in this society. As becomes clear in a brief reflection at the start of the story, Jesse can arrest and rape Black women with no accountability; when he “wanted more spice than Grace could give… he would drive over yonder and pick up a black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing.” Later in the story, Jesse beats the protest leader “until he looked as though he were dead,” torture that is sanctioned by his fellow police officers like Big Jim C. Jesse also proves that he has power not only in relation to Black people but also power over his wife; at the end of the story, he moves her body and starts having aggressive sex with her while she is still asleep.
But Jesse’s power and privilege are being challenged by the progress of the civil rights movement. Jesse notes, while torturing the protest leader, that he has seen the man at several other protests over the past year, hinting that the civil rights movement has significant momentum and has not been affected by any of Jesse and Big Jim C.’s attempts to squash it. Furthermore, though Jesse and Big Jim C. are able to break up that day’s protest and jail many of the protestors, they are unable to stop them from singing their songs of resistance even while jailed. The power of the songs signifies the power of the movement itself. And just before the bloodied protest leader passes out, he tells Jesse that he and his fellow activists won’t stop singing until white men like him lose their minds, suggesting that intimidation strategies will not work. Jesse also worries about the protestors in town gaining access to weapons because “the whole world was doing it, look at the European countries and all those countries in Africa.” This is a reference to the successful revolutionary and decolonial resistance movements that were happening worldwide in the early 1960s, showing that the civil rights movement was part of something much larger and could not easily be squelched.
Jesse’s anxious internal reflections also demonstrate that he is aware, on some level, that he is fighting a losing battle. After Jesse is unable to force the protest leader to make the other protestors stop singing, he thinks about how he and his white male friends are soldiers outnumbered in a racial war and that “It would have been a help…or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender.” This shows how tired he is of fighting a losing battle; he’s on the brink of giving up, secretly hoping to be defeated. And such a forced surrender seems imminent; when thinking about searching all of the homes of Black people in town to strip them of their weapons, Jesse decides against it since “this might have brought the bastards from the North down on their backs,” again suggesting the power of the movement and its ability to mobilize resistance. At the end of the story, after recalling a lynching he witnessed as a child, Jesse is able sustain an erection during sex with Grace and thinks excitedly of the morning to come. Though this suggests a newfound optimism about his power, the fact that Jesse has to think about an event that happened over 30 years ago to feel secure suggests he is living in denial and will only be disappointed by the continued progress of the movement.
By having Jesse wield his power against Black people and women, Baldwin demonstrates that, at this point in history, white men like Jesse (especially police officers) did have a real advantage. At the same time, by having the civil rights protestors demonstrate their own power and by showing Jesse’s deep anxieties about losing his, Baldwin shows that the gains of the civil rights movement would continue. Men like Jesse could, Baldwin suggests, try to repress or deny this reality, but sooner or later they would have to face the truth.
Civil Rights, Progress, and Resistance ThemeTracker
Civil Rights, Progress, and Resistance 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…”
“She’s gone out?”
The boy said nothing.
“Well,” he said, “tell her I passed by and I’ll pass by next week.” He started to go; he stopped. “You want some chewing gum?”
The boy got down from the swing and started for the house. He said, “I don’t want nothing you got, white man.” He walked into the house and closed the door behind him.
They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught, as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people—while here they were, out-numbered, fighting to save the civilized world. They had thought that people would care—people didn’t care; not enough, anyway, to help them. It would have been a help, really, or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender.
He thought of the boy in the cell; he thought of the man in the fire; he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound, something between a high laugh and a howl, came out of him and dragged his sleeping wife up on one elbow. She stared at him in a moonlight which had now grown cold as ice. He thought of the morning and grabbed her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whispered, as he stroked her, as he took her, “Come on, sugar, I’m going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you’d love a nigger.”