Race and Sexuality as Social Constructions

Reading ahead in the syllabus, I was interested to see that Going to Meet the Man was included in our unit on James Baldwin’s queerness. Of course, this attuned my reading to queer motifs in the short story. Going to Meet the Man is undoubtedly a story about systemic white supremacy, anti-Black police brutality, and a horrific lynching. The white family literally enjoys a picnic at the lynching, reminding the reader that Baldwin is speaking, first and foremost, about race. But there are also important passages relating to sexuality. For example, the short story opens with Jesse’s inability to achieve an erection with his wife. Although “[e]xcitement filled him like a toothache…it refused to enter his flesh.” It is only at the end, when Jesse thinks about the brutalized Black male body that he is able to achieve an erection: “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…came out of him.” It is notable, then, that Baldwin depicts Jesse as both sexually perverse and horrifically racist. 

I don’t think that Baldwin is claiming that Jesse is “gay.” As a queer man himself, it is hard to believe he would write a story in which part of Jesse’s perversion is his homosexuality. Still, I am reminded of how the United States itself constructed sexuality along similar lines as it constructed race, an idea which I first learned about after reading Siobhan B. Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. In the monograph, Somerville argues that “it was not merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between “black” and “white” bodies” (3). 

An example that Somerville offers is the year 1892 –– the year that Plessy v. Ferguson was decided by an all white, all male Supreme Court. This case was the most dramatic pronouncement of how American culture was fundamentally racialized along Black/white lines, according to Somerville. That same year, another court case entered the national limelight: the case of Alice Mitchell, who murdered her female lover because she believed there was no reason for the two to live if they could not get married. This case, widely sensationalized by national American media sources, hardened the distinction between homosexuality/heterosexuality, resulting in the widespread criminalization of sexual “inverts” (queer people). 

I bring up this reading because Going to Meet the Man attunes the reader to topics of both race and sexuality as they are constructed in America. Baldwin centers white sexualization of the Black body, such as when Jesse sees the Black man’s “privates…huge, huge, much bigger than his father’s, flaccid, hairless, the largest thing he had ever seen till then, and the blackest.” It is notable that Baldwin is voicing these fetishizing thoughts, with an attention to skin tone, through a white narrator. Hence, in Going to Meet the Man, Baldwin intertwines the themes of race and sexuality, especially as the two are constructed by anti-Black hegemonies.