The Sexualization of the African-American in “Going to Meet the Man” James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man” explores the interweaving of racism with the sexual violence against the African-American in 1965 southern America. Baldwin portrays this by investigating the violent sexual compulsions of the main character, Jesse, and how his radically racist mentality impacts his sexual relationship with his wife, his profession as a law enforcement officer and largely his self-perception. Baldwin provides a unique perspective surrounding the nature of racism by revealing the ways in which white men have over-sexualized the African-American population.
In the beginning of the story, Baldwin introduces Jesse as he is failing to perform sexually for his wife, Grace. Upon her giving up and starting to fall asleep, Jesse begins to give a detailed account of a confrontation he had with a young African-American protester that day on duty as a law enforcement officer. Although he is aware that Grace is beginning to fall asleep, he continues to graphically describe himself assaulting the boy by poking him in the groin with a cattle prod. As he is giving the details of this run-in, he begins to become aroused. He describes the victim as “lying on the ground jerking and moaning” (426), presenting a glaring sexual tone. During the encounter, Jesse fantasizes about being excessively violent toward the boy whom he stated couldn’t be older than ten (427). “Jesse wanted to go over to him and pick him up and pistol whip him until the boy’s head burst open like a melon” (428). This narration is followed by a description of his somatic reaction to this fantasy, again indicating sexual arousal. Despite the fact that Jesse becomes sexually excited by reliving this abuse he inflicted upon an African-American male, it is not implied that Jesse necessarily wishes to engage in sexual activity with a black man, so much as he wishes to engage in sexual activity as the black man.
Matt Brim of Duke University explains in the Journal of Modern Literature, “The libidinal dynamic at play in ‘Going to Meet the Man’ is homoerotic without being traditionally homosexual. In Jesse’s case, the internalized black man does not act as an obstacle or ‘counter-will’ that blocks arousal, and instead the blockage is not found in the presence of the black man but, indeed, in his absence” (Brim, 185). Baldwin indicates that Jesse feels subconsciously sexually inferior and is threatened by the sexual potency of the black man (Brim, 191). However, he has an outburst during this encounter and tells the young protester, “You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while–your women” (428). Aside from the fiercely sexual nature of this claim and the blatant manifestation of his beliefs of white supremacy, the pause before Jesse says “your women” indicates that he catches himself making homosexual suggestions. This scene provides evidence that not only is Jesse’s sexual behavior violently deviant, but that he is not fully confident in his sexuality or manhood. This indication brings up a broader argument that perhaps the white male’s compulsion to oppress and persecute the African-American male is due to the fear of being physically inferior and therefore unable to retain the social hierarchy. This is the first instance in which Jesse’s sexuality is blatantly intertwined with his need for power and violence.
As he continues his attempt at stimulating himself, he also fantasizes about sex with black women. Baldwin writes, “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; but, again, the excitement was more like pain; instead of forcing him to act, it made action impossible” (424). Here, it is made evident that Jesse possesses a sexual interest in black women, and that it, too, is violent in nature. The sexual interactions he has with black women are not depicted as consensual encounters. Baldwin writes, “Sometimes, sure, like any other man, he knew that he wanted a little more spice than Grace could give him and he would drive over yonder and pick up a black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing” (425). This narration insinuates that Jesse abuses his power as a law enforcement officer to take advantage of these women, and that it was not uncommon for him to do so. A key component of Jesse’s character is his obsession with authority, which is discernible through this commentary and the beating of the young protester. It is evident that Jesse enjoys sex with African-American women due to the salacious and taboo aspect of it as well as the power he feels when overtaking them.
Jesse’s attitude toward black women is vastly contrasted with his attitude toward his wife. In the Journal of Black Studies, Paul Griffith writes, “Baldwin suggested that in the sexual assumptions informing the Christian worldview are to be discovered formative influences behind the Southern myth that regards the body as a basis of defilement” (Griffith, 514). Because Jesse views Grace as pure and God-fearing, he is incapable of seeing her as an object of sexual desire. This reveals the degree to which society was influenced by religion, but also the belief that African-Americans were essentially subhuman and innately unchaste. Jesse’s lack of sexual feelings toward his wife highlights the “extent that the ideal of purity was associated with Whiteness and personalized in White women, sensuality was commensurately damned and projected onto Blacks” (Griffith, 516). Truly, Jesse is less aroused by the actual women he is fantasizing about than the ability to have them adhere to all his most lewd desires. Although Jesse elevates his wife to a higher degree of virtuousness, he displays no internal signs of remorse for his extramarital affairs, further illustrating his ideology that the white man should be regarded as the most dominant component in American society. Baldwin provides a glimpse into Jesse’s childhood, which reveals the psyche behind his racist views. As a child, his best friend is African-American, introducing the notion that racism is not innate, but learned.
The turning point in Jesse’s life occurs when he attends what is described as a “picnic” with his mother and father. The picnic, which turns out to be a gruesome lynching, is a defining moment for Jesse. The event is described graphically and includes strong sexual undertones: “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 private 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, 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” (435). The details of Jesse’s somatic reactions to this event are indicative that this event is where Jesse experiences his sexual awakening and acts as the impetus for his twisted sexual compulsions relating to racial violence. This critical occurrence in Jesse’s life is a ceremonious event, representing his initiation into manhood. It is also implied that Jesse is not alone in his sexual attributions to this event, which is described with the air of a “communal orgasm” (Brim, 509). Not only does this explain Jesse’s sadistic sexual nature, but also the origin of his distaste for the African-American race. The illustration of this event and Jesse’s mental and physical reactions to it presents Baldwin’s viewpoint that racism among white Americans is derived from their own insecurities, rather than the perceived inferiority of African-Americans.
Additionally, the description of the victim’s genitals introduces a reoccurring obsession that Jesse has with the black man’s supposed superior sexual performance. The castration of the black man is an important symbol, which identifies the paternal struggle between white and black men. Not only is the black man being murdered, but he is also being stripped of his manhood and ability to reproduce and therefore unable to bring more African-Americans into the world. Baldwin depicts the castration as a “death before death, figuratively killing the procreative black father just prior to the black man’s death” (Brim, 189). The story concludes with Jesse successfully performing for his wife after fantasizing about these acts of violence. While seducing his Grace, Jesse says to 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” (436). This is a clear implication of what Jesse thinks of his wife’s sexual preferences. It could be perceived that this is due to his own attraction to black females due to the idea that they are less pure, and he assumes that white females view black men in the same capacity, meaning that sex with black men would be considered more risqué and therefore more stimulating. However, it could also be interpreted that this is yet another imputation pointing to Jesse’s feelings of anatomic inferiority to the black man, and that he fears that he is inadequately endowed to please his wife.
Both perceptions provide evidence support to further reinforce Baldwin’s comprehensive theme: the notion that the white man possesses an underlying fear that the physical superiority of the black man could disrupt the social order. By exploring Jesse’s association of violence with sex, Baldwin presents an interesting conjecture in regards to the rationale behind the southern white man’s cruelty towards the African-American in the 1960s in “Going to Meet the Man”. Through the beating, lynching, and castration of black men, Baldwin proposes the idea that white men of his era feared that the perceived sexual superiority of the black man could cost them their dominant role in society and the presumed purity of the white race.
1. Brim, Matt. “Papas’ Baby: Impossible Paternity in Going to Meet the Man.” Journal of Modern Literature 30.1 (2006): 173-198. 2. Griffith, P. “James Baldwin’s Confrontation With Racist Terror in the American South: Sexual Mythology and Psychoneurosis in “Going to Meet the Man”” Journal of Black Studies 32.5 (2002): 506-27.