“They had taught him what it meant to be a man”

In “Going to Meet the Man” and Giovanni’s Room, the father figures of the main characters undertake the responsibility of showing their sons what it means to be a man. In “Going to Meet the Man,” the narrator recounts the way Jesse remembers his father and his father’s friends, saying, “They were his models…and they had taught him what it meant to be a man” (939). Jesse’s memory of a lynching in his childhood shows exactly how his father taught him his understanding of manhood. Rather than simply allowing Jesse to tag along to the murder, Jesse’s father ensures that the murder becomes formative for his young son’s conception of manhood, hoisting Jesse up on his shoulders to witness the murder and repeating that Jesse was “never gonna forget this picnic” (949). In Jesse’s father’s mind, manhood was intimately related to white supremacy and power.

Similarly, in Giovanni’s Room, David’s father attempts to impose his conception of manhood on his son. In the heat of a drunken argument with his sister, David’s father says, “All I want for David is that he grow up to be a man. And when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher” (231). Through this line, David’s father seems to imply that a man is not a beacon of purity; prior to this conversation, David’s father was “interfering” with a woman, one of his nightly activities. Ellen responds, saying, “A man is not the same thing as a bull.” In other words, his depiction of man is lacks humanity and love.

Strikingly, these two descriptions of manhood precede opposite reactions by the main characters. As the murder ends in “Going to Meet the Man,” Jesse describes loving his father more than ever (949). However, after David hears Ellen and his father’s conversation, he recounts despising his father and hating Ellen (231). Yet, despite these polar opposite reactions, each of the principal characters adopts their father’s understanding of manhood, showing that the father’s example either influences this opinion of manhood or serves as an example their sons are fated to repeat. Jesse associates manhood with power—just as his father has sex with his mother only on the eve of this expression of white power, Jesse cannot achieve an erection and fulfill his manly duty of making love to his wife unless he too thinks about power and domination over others. 

More surprisingly, David also adopts the mistaken depiction of manhood presented his father. Unwilling to fully love Giovanni, David has loveless intercourse that he does not allow to mean anything. Though not to the same extent as his father, David is a bull in the sense that his affairs are loveless and meaningless. Just as David’s father runs around with women without looking for commitment, David is unwilling to commit to a relationship filled with real love. In each of these texts, the father figures show their son’s that manhood does not entail love—the Sunday school teacher, in David’s father opinion, shows too much love and not enough manhood and the white supremacist can only love in a limited way. Though each of the characters responds differently to this message, David and Jesse ultimately repeat the loveless lives of their fathers, reinforcing the ineptitude of a live without love.

3 thoughts on ““They had taught him what it meant to be a man””

  1. I did not notice the important role of fatherhood before this post and really appreciate your evaluation! After reading both this post and Grace’s, I’m wondering whether choosing the name Jesse could imply something about the patriarchy which defines the Old Testament, especially. Jesus inherits the genealogy of that patriarchy, and, thus, the interpretations of the New Testament are necessarily influenced by it. Could Baldwin be critiquing certain evaluations of the Bible that inherit a tainted patriarchy that refuses love? By using the name’s Jesse and David, both Old Testament figures, to represent characters who cut out love in a reaction to their father’s examples is Baldwin able to make a statement about fatherhood and Christianity, simultaneously?

  2. Thanks for this post! I really appreciate how you’ve kept track of the different ideas of manhood running through these texts. It’s interesting to think about how Baldwin might be using these flawed father figures to argue that authentic masculinity is about being loving. After reading your post, I’m curious to what extent you see this as related to Baldwin’s relationship with his own father and his understanding of his own masculinity.

  3. Your analysis of father figures in these two texts is really well done. I agree that both Jesse and David are influenced by the choices and teachings of their father. I do wonder, though, if David would have adopted this idea of masculinity if he had a stronger female presence in his life. He often laments the death of his mother and looks to the caretaker of his house for comfort when he is craving the attention of a mother. There is a desire within him to be in touch with a more feminine side. All this to say, perhaps having only a father who subscribes to a particular kind of masculinity affected the extent to which he adopted those same ideas.

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