Set in the South of the 1960s, “Going to Meet the Man” opens with Jesse, a 42-year-old white police officer, trying to have sex with his wife. But as he struggles to become erect and Grace drifts off to sleep, Jesse starts remembering scenes from his past, including beating a Black protest leader nearly to death earlier that day and witnessing a brutal lynching as a child. What those moments have in common is his sexual arousal while watching racial violence against Black men. Recalling these events, Jesse becomes erect and is finally able to have sex with Grace. By having Jesse experience pleasure while witnessing or enacting violence, Baldwin subverts the idea that anti-Black racism is simply a matter of white people hating Black people, suggesting that it also involves white people envying and desiring Black people. This is particularly true, Baldwin suggests, for white men (like Jesse) who crave the sexual prowess they project onto Black men.
Baldwin establishes early on that Jesse, like most racists, feels deep hatred toward Black people. While lying in bed with his wife at the beginning of the story, Jesse says, seemingly out of the blue, “Goddamn the niggers,” before referring to Black people as “black stinking coons.” His comfortable use of slurs demonstrates the depth of his anti-Black racism. In addition to using slurs, Jesse dehumanizes Black people at several points in the story. Of Black people, he thinks, “They were animals, they were no better than animals,” and about the protest leader, he thinks “this ain’t no nigger, this is a goddamn bull.” Beyond simply using violent language to refer to Black people, Jesse also imagines and enacts violence against them, thinking about how much easier it would be to bomb all of the Black people in town if they all lived in one place, and also violently beating a Black protestor almost to death.
Despite his conscious rejection of Black people, Jesse unconsciously experiences pleasure in his interactions with them, demonstrating that racism is also about sexualization and desire. After being unable to stay erect while having sex with his wife, Jesse reflects that he doesn’t have this problem with the Black women he picks up or arrests. This memory of being with Black women causes a “distant excitement” in him. Later in the story, in a flashback to beating a Black protest leader nearly to death earlier that day, Jesse “began to hurt all over with that particular excitement” and later shouts at the protestor that he is lucky that white men like him “pump some white blood” into “Black bitches.” To his horror, this moment of uncontrollable sexualized rage leads him to become erect. Furthermore, in a flashback to witnessing a lynching as a child, Jesse watches a crowd of white people laugh and cheer in pleasure as the lynching victim is tortured and Jesse himself starts to feel “a joy he had never felt before.”
The story explicitly connects white racial violence against Black men to the sexual prowess that white people like Jesse project onto Black men. While witnessing the lynching, a young Jesse notices the lynching victim’s penis and thinks about how it is “much bigger than his father’s…the largest thing he had ever seen till then.” In having Jesse compare the size of the penis to his father’s (a stand in for his own adult penis), Baldwin shows that white men’s anger toward Black men stems from envy about not measuring up sexually. Then, after thinking about the lynching, Jesse has aggressive sex with Grace, telling her, “I’m going to do you like a nigger,” and exerting himself more than he ever had before. The fact that Jesse is only able to sustain an erection while channeling the sexual vitality he believes a Black man to have underlines his envy of that perceived sexual prowess.
By zeroing in on the sexual undertones of racial violence, Baldwin suggests that racism is not simply about hatred or rage. Jesse, unable to accept or name his jealousy of Black men, acts out in violence toward them while also, at least in bed with his wife, wanting to be them. Jesse’s sense of power and relief at the end of the story will not be sustainable, Baldwin suggests, since he is unable to reconcile these underlying feelings.
Sexuality, Pleasure, and Racial Violence ThemeTracker
Sexuality, Pleasure, and Racial Violence Quotes in Going to Meet the Man
This was his wife. He could not ask her to do just a little thing for him, just to help him out, just for a little while, the way he could ask a nigger girl to do it. He lay there, and he sighed. The image of a black girl caused a distant excitement in him, like a far-away light[.]
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…
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.
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.”