When I read “Going to Meet the Man,” I honestly found Jesse’s character so disturbing that I didn’t really want to think about why Baldwin chose to use the name “Grace” for the character of Jesse’s wife. However, when Prof. Kinyon brought it up in class, it was helpful to start to think through some of the symbolism and consider what commentary Baldwin might be making. It was also helpful to try to make sense of why this story, which is primarily about racial violence, is in the unit about queer identity. Baldwin never chooses names carelessly, and there’s a lot of meaning behind Grace’s name in this story.
In my research for my senior thesis, I’m reading a lot by theologian Mark Jordan, who studies sexuality, silence, and violence in Christianity. One of his insights is that the erotic is a privileged form of speech in how we talk about human relationships with God—that is, it’s some of the best language we have for describing intimacy between God and humans, as art like “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” illustrates. Without a way of being honest about sexuality, of course our relationships with God and one another will be distorted, which all too often leads to violence.
Jordan’s insight helped me make a bit more sense of “Going to Meet the Man.” With a distorted understanding of sexuality, one based around violence and racism rather than love, how could Jesse possibly attain grace? As we started to discuss in class, Baldwin’s work always circles back to trying to reclaim the Christian message of love. Viewing the story through this lens helps me understand how Grace’s character might fit into the broader themes about love, sexuality, violence, and redemption that run through Baldwin’s work.
One question I still have after reading this story is, why would Baldwin choose Jesse as the main character’s name? In the Bible, Jesse is an important part of Jesus’ ancestry, the father of King David. It’s safe to assume that Baldwin was well aware of Jesse’s role in Christianity, so why would he give this name to such a despicable character?