April 9, 2023
Happy Egg Day
This morning I re-read James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” and I had forgotten what a brutal story it is. Thematically, it addresses how white supremacy enslaves the soul to such a degree that it subsumes the entire identity of those it infects. Jesse, the central figure—I don’t think protagonist is the correct word to describe him, since he has no real character arc—is a middle-aged white police man in the mid-sixties who is obviously involved with the effort to suppress civil-rights protesters. Jesse and his wife Grace go to bed, and Jesse wants to have sex, but can’t get it up, seemingly distracted by what he sees as his duty to combat the threat from the soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. Jesse is a white warrior in what he sees as a racial war. Ironically, Jesse’s violence toward the black protestors seems to stem from his lack of sexual virility, and he actually envies and wants to possess what he sees as the raw virility and sexual power of the black man. And he will do what he must—even beat it out of him—to take his power through force.
This conflation of power and sexuality stems from his experience as a boy seeing his white community lynch a black man: castrating him before burning him alive and mutilating his corpse. Jesse remembers the scene:
|“||In the cradle of the one white hand, the n*****’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. The white hand stretched them, cradled them, caressed them. Then the dying man's eyes looked straight into Jesse’s eyes—it could not have been as long as a second, but it seemed longer than a year. Then Jesse screamed, and the crowd screamed as the knife flashed, first up, then down, cutting the dreadful thing away, and the blood came roaring down. Then the crowd rushed forward, tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing.||”|
Fucking brutal, like something out of the Iliad, but much more terrible because it’s much closer to home. The man’s penis both terrifies and excites Jesse, linking violence and death to sexual virility. Jesse’s arc is about fucking his wife, and through his flashbacks about suppression, cruelty, and dominance, he is finally able to get hard and, like an animal, give it to her. Is it significant that her name is Grace? The whole community seems strange to Jesse, like his mother, who “was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange.”
This story is meant to shock. And it does. I guess this is the kind of work that the current Republican party does not want anyone to read. That’s why it’s so important to do so.
Happy Easter, all.
- Baldwin, James (1986) . "Going to Meet the Man". In Halpern, Daniel. The Art of the Tale. New York: Penguin. pp. 52–64.
- The quality of behaving in a kind, forgiving, and compassionate manner, especially towards those who have wronged us in some way. It also suggests a spirituality, or a divine quality that offers mercy and forgiveness.
- Baldwin 1986, p. 62.