Bygone Innocence: A Reflection on “Going to Meet the Man”
For many individuals, the relationships that exist between family members are the strongest and most influential human connections that the person will ever experience within his or her lifetime. These bonds, formed in early psychosocial development, have the potential to permanently define how a person views his or her world. Often, children hold fast to the values and social stigmas that sprout from early family interactions and relationships for the remainder of their lives, regardless of whether the values go against the true moral norm or not. However, even within the confines of these tight family bonds, free thinking can be achieved and it is possible for a person to break free from recycled family values. It takes an extremely courageous person to challenge social and societal wrong in any case, but even more so when the moral aberration is the majority opinion within your present societal situation and reinforced within the value system of the intermediate family.
In “Going to Meet the Man,” the reader is presented with one of the most horrific, gut wrenching torture and murder scenes in literary history. This scene casts a pall over the remainder of the story. It is almost so grotesque that the reader misses the most important theme within the story. It is a story of racism, bigotry, hatred, and murder, but the most astonishing and, perhaps, the most amazing element is the eye opening transformation of an innocent young child into a stereotypical Southern bigot. Through this amazing example of storytelling, Baldwin manages to climb inside the brain of a corrupt, racist Southern police officer to relay the story of how this man came to hate.
Jesse hated them. He hated those “black stinking coons.” They were the problem. They caused all this strife. They were his problem now. Why wouldn’t they shut that singing up? Jesse was the law. It was his job to maintain order. Big Jim C barked out the orders and Jesse carried them out. Generally speaking, Jesse did not have too much of an issue keeping them in-line, but things had begun to get out of hand recently. One of the most appalling side effects of this “colored uprising” was the recent influx of all those Northern folks coming in and blemishing the town’s good name. It was time to for Jesse to take matters into his own hands and this colored prisoner would be the one that bore the brunt of Jesse’s frustration.
Jesse put the [cattle] prod to the young man. “‘You make them stop that singing,’ [Jesse] said to [the prisoner], ‘you hear me?’” (2559). Jesse put the prod to him again−once, twice, a third time− but the prisoner would not stop the singing. Over and over, Jesse sent intense jolts of electricity through the young man until he had passed out from shock. As the encounter with the young man went into an interlude, Jesse began to tremble as an intense and peculiar joy washed over him. Something deep from within his memory was resurfacing, but the overall detail of the scene eluded him.
Baldwin uses this particular encounter to show the utter elation that a person can experience when an event occurs that is strangely related to a past pleasurable experience. The particular incident from Jesse’s past within this short story is an extremely graphic and gruesome depiction of a public torture and murder of a black man accused of a “crime” against a white woman. Upon first encountering the grotesque depiction of the scene, the reader is completely overwhelmed by a feeling of intense disgust. The feeling of disgust is so strong that many of the subtle nuances of Baldwin’s tale regarding the loss of a young boy’s innocence are completely consumed in wave after wave of nauseating revolt.
While finding beauty on the surface of this story might be a difficult task, the reader can certainly appreciate the lengths to which Baldwin went in order to show how any person in any situation can become the victim of twisted family values and societal expectations. This story is a stretch into the fantastic as Baldwin exaggerated the particular scene within the story. It is likely that he combined many elements of particularly gruesome, unlawful attacks on black people during the civil rights era and the period of history prior to this. However, this hyperbolic writing is most certainly effective as the experience of the reader goes beyond mere words on a page. The reader actually sees what a young Jesse saw and feels what Jesse felt on that fateful day that forever changed his life and perception.
Jesse had not always been the bigot that he was standing in the cell with that broken and bleeding black man. There was a time when Jesse was just a boy and the other boys his age, regardless of color, were just boys. “He had a black friend, his age, eight, who lived nearby. His name was Otis. They wrestled together in the dirt” (2663). Here, Baldwin highlights the simple fact that Otis and Jesse were friends. Regardless of race, creed, or religion, they were just boys who liked to play together. However, in the very next line, the reader begins to see the first signs of the transformation of young Jesse. “Now the thought of Otis made him sick. He began to shiver” (2563). There was something afoot. Jesse did not quite understand the details of what was happening, but he was sharp enough to understand that an event had happened that had somehow driven the racist wedge deeper, further dividing the perilous crevice between black and white.
Jesse also knew something was about to happen. A rash action was about to take place in the light this new development within the atmosphere of the racial strife that permeated the air of the town in which Jesse lived and he knew it. In his innocence, Jesse questioned his father regarding the recent scarcity of his friend. “‘We didn’t see Otis this morning,’ Jesse said. He did not know why he said this. His voice, in the darkness of the car, sounded small and accusing. ‘You haven’t seen Otis for a couple of mornings,’ his mother said. That was true. But he was only concerned about this morning. ‘No,’ his father said, ‘I reckon Otis’s folks was afraid to let him show himself this morning’” (2563). Jesse’s response to his father’s statement indicates that Jesse was concerned about the well-being of his colored friend. “‘But Otis didn’t do nothing!’ Now his voice sounded questioning. ‘Otis can’t do nothing,’ said his father, ‘he’s too little’… ‘We just want to make sure that Otis don’t do nothing’” (2563). The statement from Jesse’s father leaves the boy with an ominous feeling regarding the event that is about to occur and further colors the boy’s perception in regards to the societal expectation of race relations within Jesse’s small sphere of existence.
Upon waking the next day, Jesse is confronted by a group of people in his front yard dressed as if they were about to head to Sunday service. The crowd was engaging in conversation that revolved around the capture of a black man accused of a “crime” against a white woman. Jesse’s family made quick preparation and headed off after the convoy that had already begun the journey to Harkness−the location of the day’s excitement. “Where are we going? Are we going on a picnic?” (2565). Again, Jesse’s innocence is evidenced by his child-like lack of understanding. “‘That’s right,’ his father said, ‘we’re going on a picnic. You won’t ever forget this picnic−!” (2565). Jesse’s father makes this statement very knowingly. It is as if he is assured that the event that Jesse is about experience will forever solidify his perception and value system.
It is evident from the story and the historical period in which the story takes place that Jesse had grown up in an extremely racist society. It can be assumed that he experienced elements of racism and prejudice on a daily basis from the attitude that his father expresses toward the black race as a whole throughout the story. Startlingly, however, Jesse is presented in the light of childish innocence prior to the event at the Harkness. Jesse was just another boy, understanding the basic expectation that society held him to as a member of the white race, but eschewing this expectation for childish games and camaraderie with anyone regardless of race, religion, or any other divisive factor. Jesse just wanted to play and enjoy life. His carefree world was about to change forever.
The car ride seemed to stretch on and on. Jesse noted the strange, cruel curve of his father’s lips. Details of his father’s appearance began to materialize dramatically in his perception. “He was terribly aware of his father’s tongue, it was as though he had never seen it before. And his father’s body seemed as big as a mountain” (2565). The car finally stopped. Jesse stepped out of the vehicle to see a mob standing before a spectacle that had them cheering and had raised the level of excitement to an almost tangible level. The tingle in the air was almost too much for Jesse to bear. He couldn’t quite make out what was going on as he was much shorter than the rest of the crowd, but his father quickly remedied this and placed the young boy on his shoulders. He didn’t want Jesse to miss a thing. The first aspect that Jesse noticed about the scene unfolding in front of him was the gleaming chain.
At this point in the story, the scene changes from an innocent gathering to the disgusting picture that becomes burned into the reader’s consciousness. Baldwin now uses extremely strong language to describe both the scene unfolding before young Jesse and the personal awareness of a boy about to be forever changed by one animalistic act against another human being by a bigoted mob. The most intriguing aspect of this scene is not the inhuman act carried out against the captured man. While the crime committed against the man is certainly the most disturbing aspect of this scene, the act itself is not the point. It becomes a vivid punctuation to the cementation of bigotry within young Jesse’s value system.
Jesse witnesses first hand the unjust torture and murder of a man based solely on race and perception. The grotesque scene culminates in a gruesome mutilation followed by the captured man being beaten to death by the unruly mob. While the murder is taking place, a strange excitement arises in Jesse. It is as if this is the pinnacle of Jesse’s existence. Every racist sentiment that he had been taught throughout his life became tangible. Not only was this excitement present deep within Jesse, but it was also evident in the rest of the crowd. Jesse especially notes his mother’s reaction throughout the ordeal. “He watched his mother’s face. Her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he and ever seen her, and more strange” (2567). What effect did his mother’s reaction have on the young boy? “He began to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watched the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then. One of his father’s friends reached up and in his hands he held a knife: and Jesse wished that he had been that man” (2567).
In a matter of mere minutes, Jesse had gone from an innocent young boy to bigoted white boy. His perceptions regarding the differences between the races that he had developed over the course of his young life came rushing to the forefront of his mind and he was forever changed. Gone was the young boy who rolled in the dirt with Otis, for Otis was no longer the same. He was now a colored boy. Rushing in to take the place of his childish innocence, set aside in the in the brief moments of watching a man be tortured and murdered, was a hatred that would rule the remainder of Jesse’s life.
This “picnic” was the consolidation of all the bigoted values that Jesse had been taught and had seen modeled by his society throughout his life. This brought Jesse to a point in his life where he was susceptible to a life-altering experience which occurred while he was in attendance of this abhorrent event. Simply, it was a traumatic experience that finally confirmed all of the racist attitudes and beliefs that the boy had been exposed to throughout his life. It was empirical evidence that reinforced the family and societal values in which Jesse had been indoctrinated. Jesse was unsure of how exactly to react to the situation at hand; therefore, he looked to his family in order to learn what was expected of him. First, his father impressed the young boy while driving to the Harkness. “His [father’s] eyes, which were grey-green, looked yellow in the sunlight; or at least there was a light in them which he had never seen before” (2565). Jesse first notes that his father was changed. He somehow was different and more alive than he had ever been before. This established the emotional tone for the encounter that Jesse was preparing to experience. Then, during the awful scene, Jesse notes his mother’s reaction. This also lends to the way in which Jesse processes this experience. The rest of the mob also plays a crucial role in young Jesse’s perception of the murder as he joins in the mob’s blood-curdling, involuntarily scream as the captured man in finally mutilated and murdered.
Could this have been prevented if the societal norm or Jesse’s family values were different? This is the heart of the question that Baldwin is proposing. He actually presents Jesse’s life as the tragedy within the story. Of course, the torture and murder is absolutely appalling; however, the real tragedy of the story occurs when a young boy was forever lost to the plague of racism due to the conformation to societal norm and expected family values no matter how opposite these values are in regards to true morality. The story is a bold statement that transcends the festering sore of racism on the face of American history and cries out for the reader to examine all of the values to which he or she subscribes and to honestly appraise the foundations on which these beliefs have been constructed. Belief systems based on values that are faulted lead to societies that are broken and, ultimately, to individuals that are horridly misshapen by hatred and selfishness. This is the most prevalent downfall of modern society, and, if the problem is not remedied, it will lead to society’s ultimate demise.
Baldwin, James. “Going to Meet the Man.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th
Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2557-2568