Jesse—the white Southern police officer at the center of the story—reflects bitterly on all aspects of Black culture and Black life, sometimes out loud to his sleeping wife and sometimes within his own mind. In a memory that comes near the end of the story, Jesse is eight years old and does not yet possess the same racist rage. In fact, his closest friend at the time is a Black child named Otis, whose intellect he respects. It is not until Jesse’s father and Jesse’s mother take him to witness a brutal lynching, surrounded by hundreds of other white people, that he transforms from an open-minded child to an overtly racist young man. By allowing readers a glimpse of Jesse before having internalized a racist ideology, Baldwin implies that racism is a learned response white children adopt in order to be accepted by their community, not an inherent part of a person’s character. Further, by closing their hearts and minds, Baldwin suggests that racism hurts white people, too.
Despite Jesse’s extreme racism as an adult, eight-year-old Jesse sees Black people as human, implying that white people are not born racist. In the flashback to Jesse as a child, he thinks fondly of Otis, a Black friend he cares for deeply. He has not seen Otis for two days and, based on his parents’ strange behavior leading up to the lynching, he worries for Otis’s safety. Jesse does not understand what is happening and wishes he could ask Otis because Otis “knew everything,” showing that Jesse not only cared for Otis but also respected his intellect—signs that he saw him much more fully than the Black people he meets as an adult. On the way to the lynching, Jesse notices that all of the Black people he normally sees in the fields along the road are missing. Rather than celebrate their absence the way adult Jesse might, young Jesse feels worried and reflects fondly on memories of them tipping their hats and smiling, “their eyes as warm as the sun.”
It is not until witnessing the way that his father, mother, and hundreds of other white people respond to the lynching that Jesse learns how to dehumanize Black people. While watching the lynching victim hanging by his hands, still alive, Jesse sees him as a person at first, noticing, for example, how he had a widow’s peak in his hair just like Jesse and Jesse’s father. He wonders, “What did the man do? What did he do?” suggesting that he has not yet accepted the racist belief that Black people inherently deserve to be mistreated. He also feels that the spectators’ delight is “more acrid than smoke.” But after Jesse notices his parents’ and the crowd’s positive reactions to the lynching—his mother’s eyes are “very bright” and his father’s are “peaceful”—he starts to embrace the violence as well, even wishing that he were the man castrating the victim. He has recognized that he will be celebrated by his community for engaging in racist violence, rather than belittled for caring about Black people as he had in the past. Jesse feels full of love for his father, reflecting on how he “had revealed to [Jesse] a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.” The secret, Baldwin suggests, is embracing racism.
Though Jesse has clearly materially benefited from embracing racism, Baldwin hints that, at an emotional level, learning to be racist hurts white people, too. Early in the story, Jesse remembers how he offered candy to a Black child (a younger version of the civil rights protest leader he beats up in jail) who told him, “I don’t want nothing you got, white man.” Through this child, Baldwin suggests that white people are not actually in an enviable position, despite all their privilege. Jesse also unconsciously senses his own racial wound. While recalling moments of watching Black people singing, he reflects on how, looking into their eyes, he sensed that some of them “were singing for mercy for his soul, too.” In other words, they saw that, through dehumanizing them, he had lost a part of himself. Jesse is also unable to connect with people in his life the way he could with Otis—certainly not Black people, but not white people either. What he and his white male friends had in common was a shared commitment to upholding the racist status quo and, without that, he no longer trusts anyone in his life.
By juxtaposing an open-hearted eight-year-old Jesse with a bitter 42-year-old Jesse, Baldwin demonstrates how white people in the early twentieth century were granted power and privilege by embracing racism, but it came at an emotional cost, especially as the world around them was rapidly advancing. White people are not born racist, Baldwin suggests, but taught by parents and elders how to be so, and stopping that cycle will benefit all.
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Learning Racism Quotes in Going to Meet the Man
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.
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.
He had come this road many a time and seen women washing in the yard (there were no clothes on the clotheslines) men working in the fields, children playing in the dust; black men passed them on the road other mornings, other days, on foot, or in wagons, sometimes in cars, tipping their hats, smiling, joking, their teeth a solid white against their skin, their eyes as warm as the sun, the blackness of their skin like dull fire against the white or the blue or the grey of their torn clothes.
The man with the knife took the nigger’s privates in his hand, one hand, still smiling, as though he were weighing them. In the cradle of the one white hand, the nigger’s privates seemed as remote as meat being weighed in the scales; but seemed heavier, too, much heavier, and Jesse felt his scrotum tighten; and huge, huge, much bigger than his father’s, flaccid, hairless, the largest thing he had ever seen till then, and the blackest.
“Well, I told you,” said his father, “you wasn’t never going to forget this picnic.” His father’s face was full of sweat, his eyes were very peaceful. At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.
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.”