Unity in Christianity

While reading “Going to Meet the Man”, I noticed many similarities with “Down at the Cross”. For one, there is a consistent questioning of how Christianity differs between blacks and whites. Is God the same towards blacks as he is towards whites? Is there a separate heaven for separate races? In “Going to Meet the Man”, Baldwin writes about a white man named Jessie. “…he [Jessie] had never thought of their [African Americans] heaven or what God was, or could be, for them…” (Baldwin 938). Jessie deduces that there must be a separate heaven and maybe even a separate God for black people than whites. It’s not surprising that it’s not something he has thought about. Why would someone want to think that those they dehumanize on earth could actually prove to have the same worth in heaven? We see the same conclusions from a black perspective. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin writes, “But God…is white” (304). Baldwin has difficulty believing that the same God white Christians worshiped, could ever love him as well. We see this saddening ideology of racial separation in a belief that clearly stands for unity. This is due to the way the world we live in affects our spiritual beliefs. I find that often we judge God’s character based on the character of people or society. During Baldwin’s time especially, society said that we were meant to be separate and some automatically assumed that heaven must work the same. In our world, whites are automatically categorized as righteous and pure while blacks are subconsciously seen as sinful and suspicious. This leaves people assuming that God sees people the way society does- whites as godly and blacks as ungodly.  To this day, we still have white churches and black churches. Why can’t people worship the same God together? It’s obvious that this racial separation continues to prevalent in our world today.  However, doesn’t Jesus call for unity? Why isn’t the church representing God’s kingdom the way it’s supposed to? I believe these are questions Baldwin wrestles with.

Galatians 3: 28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV). It’s clear that God does not see anyone as superior or inferior. He sees us as not just equal but one and the same. Separation and inequality are things the world teaches us, but not something God teaches. We must be careful with looking at the world for God when the world does not support what He says. Baldwin falls into the lie that God and the world run the same way when in reality they do not. Unity is what God calls for, yet all we see in the world and the church is disunion. The church is meant to represent Christ, and this is one thing that is certainly missing. God does not change his word for the world. We must change our world for his word. Moral of the story is to depend on God more than what we see in the world and shoot for change.

Power of Love

Though seemingly completely different characters, Baldwin connects Jesse from Going to Meet The Man with David from Giovani’s Room with precision. Both protagonists fall exceedingly short of Baldwin’s goals in the same way – the inability to love. 

The Latin-derived name Grace means “Gift from God”. This element is important as it connects to Baldwin’s biblical intent. It also exacerbates Jesse’s inability to love. Jesse, consumed by his hatred of Black people, cannot love his wife emotionally or physically. In fact, his hatred for African Americans does not allow him to actually love himself or his own people. He is jailed by his hatred of Black people and it manifests in sick ways. Not only does the abuse and mutilation of Black people bring him joy, it defines who he is. His hatred was taught to him by his father and the society at large. Family gatherings and community events center around the lynchings of Black men. The hate is so ingrained in him that he cannot actually love. His hate consumes even his most intimate acts. He can only have relations with his wife when he taps into hate thoughts—memories of lynchings and the abuse of Black people. Jesse’s fixation on Black male genitalia can be interpreted in multiple ways. It could be argued that it signals his hidden homo erotic nature. It could be viewed as pure fascination with an opposite. It could be viewed as study of the power dynamic that Jesse seeks to make up for his short comings. His desire for power can be found in his jealousy of his “enemy’s” maleness. It speaks directly to his insecurities. 

In Giovanni’s Room, David—like Jesse— has a relationship with a woman where he attempts to tap into the perceived “heterosexual” power. There is a status that derives from David’s ability to revert to his normative relationship whenever he pleases. This allows him the ability to have loveless encounters with Joey and eventually Giovanni. He holds the power in all relationships with gay men because he can simply fade and downgrade the relationship, thus never having to offer his love, affection, vulnerability. However, Baldwin argues that both characters are fatally trapped – Jesse’s all-consuming hatred and David’s lack of emotional commitment—both disabling them from love. Jesse can never truly develop a relationship with God because he lacks the most important key to establishing that relationship. Hate consumes him so much that there is no room for love. David tries to be perceived as being more powerful in his homosexual relationships because he can always run to the other side. In truth, Baldwin demonstrates he’s not. Giovanni holds the power as he expresses his love to David without fear of the outside world. Giovanni is able to remember the time when he was in the Garden of Eden when he had a normative relationship and was happy, and he is able to forget that Garden of Eden as he dives fully into a homosexual relationship where he looks to love as well. He is a true hero, according to Baldwin. Love is priority number one for Baldwin, so one’s ability to be “manly” should be demonstrated in one’s ability to love, not who they love.

Working through “Going to Meet the Man”

I can’t get “Going to Meet the Man” out of my head. I think it’s because this short story has been the most brutal one that I’ve read for any class. What I got from the short story is that Baldwin, through some very disturbing scenes, was trying to explain (maybe just theorizing or examining) how Jesse’s (and the other white men’s) sexual insecurity can be seen as a metaphor for understanding racial oppression. Jesse, as a white police officer, was experiencing the turmoil of the Jim Crow era. Black men were seen as a threat to the dominance that white people exercised, so the threats were neutralized through lynchings, beatings, and torture. Not saying that we have this level of brutality today. Still, the pain and shock that I experienced reading this mirror the ones I’ve felt times and times again when I see a video of or read an article of a black body being brutalized today.

One recurring mechanism behind Jesse’s racism is the objectification of the Black body. And it’s a trope/idea that we’ve seen in many other readings in this class. The immediate one that comes to mind is Native Son. In this short story, it seems like, through the White gaze, black bodies are othered and transformed into animals to justify white supremacy and racism. My understanding of Wright’s argument in Native Son points to a similar phenomenon. Wright’s novel attempted to make the case that rather than black people having an innately depraved mentality, it is white objectification and racism that led to the creation of Bigger Thomas, a character that illustrated the formation of black identity through violence.

Yet, at one point, I did feel sorry for Jesse when he was recounting the stories from his childhood. It was interesting to see how this young child could have been raised to become a terrorist.

Corrupted Christianity

Jesse’s cruelty is absolutely horrifying and disgusting. Similarly, his absolute delusion and evil persuasion of his own blessedness or security is terrifying. In the very first paragraph, after Grace tells him he has been working too hard, he aggressively spits back ” ‘it’s not my fault.’ ” In this first refusal to take responsibility for the choices that are effecting his soul and community, Jesse hints at his absolute disconnect from reality. A master manipulator, Jesse argues to himself that “he had tried to do his duty all his life.” This doesn’t include thinking critically about the abusive misconception of duty he is working under. Indeed, the narrator claims Jesse “had never thought much about what it meant to be a good person.” There is a deeply disturbing assumption of rightness in Jesse’s character. This allows him to justify all sorts of evil behaviors. 

He blames the kids he manipulates for their innocence, laughing at how “they all liked him, the kids used to smile when he came to the door.” His delusion of complete superiority enables his absolute domination and manipulation. He again harks back to his lack of responsibility, claiming his violence “wasn’t his fault” if his Black neighbors had “taken it into their heads to fight against God and go against the rules laid down in the Bible for everyone to read.” Again, Jesse makes an uninformed, uncritical, and vicious appeal to a greater morality in order to explain away his responsibility. Even in his memories, Jesse tells himself a story of an unchangeable or natural corruption and superiority. He claims his childhood self had “wished that he had been that man,” inflicting violence on the lynched man. 

In all these examples, there is a sense that the greater religious and societal systems are just as corrupted. After the lynching, Jesse feels his father “carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret.” In this language, almost like that between God and Abraham, Baldwin hints at the way white Christianity has been so thoroughly perverted, to a satanic point almost. 

This eerie horror does slip into Jesse consciousness, even if he ultimately overcomes it through the his vicious  domination. There is a deep anxiety in Jesse’s character that his Black neighbors are “singing white folks into hell.” When met with a resistant young Black boy, Jesse feels trapped, “perhaps one of the nightmares he himself had dreamed as a child.” He responds to this feeling with cruelty, but the horror of the moment is not lost on him. Similarly, the terror of young Jesse at the lynching, especially regarding his father’s dark joke (“if he don’t come back to haunt you”), precedes his ultimate delusive and perverted moral security or comfort at the end. 

In his haunted evil, Jesse portrays the way America’s white patriarchy has passed down and institutionalized a delusion of superiority, premised on violent Black death.

(sorry no page numbers, using a PDF!!!)

Sex and Power

I have been thinking a lot about our discussion during Wednesday’s class regarding how Jesse in “Going to Meet the Man” thinks of sex as being about power and domination rather than love. In reading this story, we can all recognize what a horrible, distorted sense of love and affection Jesse has for his wife, if he has any sense of this at all. He does not seem to think of Grace as more than an object to fulfill his sexual needs, and since she does not even really have the ability to do that, she probably means very little to him. However, I feel like David in Giovanni’s Room also falls into this trap of associating sex with the power that one can have over another. David demonstrates his concern with this part of his relationship with Giovanni during their fight when David accuses Giovanni of wanting to feel strong in their relationship and wanting David to be his “little girl” (337). Giovanni says that he does not think about their relationship in this same way, but David does not seem to be able to separate sex from the power he feels he needs to demonstrate to prove his masculinity. Because of this, I have a difficult time trying to decide if I think David actually loves Giovanni. On the one hand, I do not think that David would have been able to have a relationship with just any man because it takes a lot for him to allow another person to see his true self. For him to be able to do this with Giovanni, I think that he must have had to love him at least a little bit. However, I also think that David did not even let Giovanni see his full true self, as he remained guarded, deceptive, and concerned with the power dynamic of their relationship even as he was saying that he loved Giovanni. Regardless of the extent to which David loved Giovanni, though, it is clear that any relationship that cannot consider sex as separated from power is going to be problematic.

Power and Execution

In Giovanni’s Room and “Going to Meet the Man,” Baldwin makes an argument for love and against hatred. Giovanni and David’s relationship fails because David is unwilling to admit his love, rather hoping that he will be able to live a straight American lifestyle after he leaves Paris. Similarly, Jesse is unable to love his wife Grace because he sees sex as a form of domination rather than love. But even though these two men are the causes of their failed relationships, they do not face the greatest consequences in each of these stories that involve execution. Rather, Giovanni and the man at the lynching are killed as a result of the main characters’ inability to love. David and Jesse both associate sex with power rather than love, which results in their worlds being worse off for themselves, but more so for the people they infatuate over.

We have talked heavily about who had the power in David and Giovanni’s relationship. and I believe it is David, for he associates his sex life with his ability to enter a straight space. He does not enjoy having sex with Hella, but does so anyway because he wants to be a “natural” American man; he wants a family, a house, and steady income. And he holds this idea of a “natural” life over Giovanni throughout their entire relationship, reminding him of the looming threat of Hella returning to Paris, which will cause David to return to his “natural” self. Giovanni does not understand why David cannot love him, and it is because David believes Giovanni will not give him any power, both economic and social, if he has a full time relationship with him. Hella on the other hand will give David that power because she gives him access to the straight married world that David’s father wishes him to enter before he gives his son any more access to money. David flees his relationship with Giovanni because it does not give him any social or economic power, and because of this Giovanni sets his own path towards execution; David’s infatuation with power, then, serves as one of the blows in Giovanni’s long path towards execution, with the final blow being the guillotine. Had David practiced a life of love rather than power, Giovanni would probably not be facing death. Similarly, Jesse also experiences an execution in his story, but rather than being the cause of it, he is the result of it: a man who has been taught hate and power is the way of the world.

Jesse, in a sense, is a more extreme version of David; he is incapable of love, but does not even consider that love is a possibility in his life. Instead, he arouses himself with images of hate and power, specifically the castration of the man at his first “picnic.” His sense of power is not an economic or social one like David’s, but a purely physical one where domination over the body is equivalent to happiness in sex. He sees the castration as something pleasurable because it is the ultimate form of domination over the body, in that it is both a murder and a sexual destruction. Baldwin shows us how harmful a life of hatred can be, with people infatuated with destruction and domination rather than love. Jesse is an extreme example, but he is the logical conclusion to a child being taught a doctrine of hatred; it follows that he equates execution with sexual fulfillment because his father taught him that execution is where people come together.

Through Giovanni’s Room and “Going to Meet the Man,” Baldwin shows us how the dogma of power corrupts the purity of love. In both stories a father figure teaches their son “natural” ideas of the family and its power in society. David learns that the straight American family is a path toward happiness because it gives him access to wealth. Jesse is taught that physical domination brings happiness because it brings power to those who dominate. While the ends of Giovanni and the castrated man is far worse than the ends of David and Jesse, Baldwin still shows us that obsession with power has ruined both of the main characters of these stories. David is left sickened and disturbed by the image of himself in the mirror and Jesse is left impotent unless he thinks of violence. While Giovanni and the man are physically executed, David and Jesse are spiritually executed, left with empty and unfulfilling lives because they were taught to practice accessing power over trying to love.

Sex, Violence, and Power

Robert Gnuse’s article argues that the seven biblical passages condemning homosexuality are not referring to relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals, but abuses of power and control. With this frame of thinking, it is clear that Christians should use their faith to condemn sex that is pedophilic, describes rape or attempted rape, or is done with hatred in the heart. Instead, the scripture is used to attack the LGBTQ+ community and equate all same-sex relationships with subjugation and immorality. To undermine this mindset, in Going to Meet the Man Baldwin depicts a relationship that, from an outsider’s perspective, is the model for virtuous and ethical sexuality. There is a heterosexual union between a man and a woman that Christians would openly support more than the union of a same-sex couple.

However, we uncover that Jesse’s sexual perversions fit into the biblical descriptions of immoral sexuality as compared to homoeroticism. Jesse rapes Black women, gets aroused from assaulting young boys with a cattle prod, and finally gets off on the memory of the murder and subjugation of a Black man from the power of white men. The Biblical condemnation of homosexuality serves to protect young boys and men from being violated or penetrated by another man trying to hold mastery over them. Baldwin directly connects Jesse’s sexuality with violence and control when Jesse feels himself “violently stiffen” as he sees the effect of his brutality on the beaten young man in the jail cell. In his attempt to describe raping Black women to the boy, Jesse slips and says to him “You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while—your women” referring first to the man before correcting himself to say his women–creating homoerotic tension (938). Jesse also fits into the predatory stereotype commonly assigned to gay men as he attempts to charm little Black boys with candy and gum only to assault them as they get older.

Despite all of this, Jesse still believes he is acting out his life and sexuality in a pure and honorable manner. Jesse thinks, “And he was a good man, a God-fearing man, he had tried to do his duty all his life” (934). Here we see the conflict with what Jesse has been raised to believe is good and moral, and the horrendous nature of his thoughts and actions. He believes he is charged to destroy those who “fight against God and go against the rules laid down in the Bible for everyone to read” (939). This shows the tension between the finer rules laid out in the Bible and Christians’ execution of these laws with violence and hatred. Jesse completely neglects the overall mission of Christ which is to love others.

No Grace

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? 

“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.

Love and Hate

ThroughoutGoing to Meet the Man, there is a certain contrast between love and hate. I found it interesting that Baldwin chooses to tell this tale of horrifying hatred during the act of lovemaking was performed. Jessie is unable to get an erection, which is when he recounts an incidence of extreme hatred towards a black man. This gruesome tale of a black man getting mutated and lynched by the white public is told without paying much attention to what action the man did to deserve this inhumane treatment. Baldwin writes that Jessie “beg[ins] to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watche[s] the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then.” (Baldwin 335) The joy is contrasted with the hatred which has caused the “hanging” body. This contrast allows the reader to really feel disgusted at the white man who is turned on by this hate. It makes the story more impactful for me because Jessie does not find anything wrong with the joy he is receiving after seeing such heinous treatment. It makes me despise this white man, who represents the general white male population at that time. Baldwin also contrasts love and hate when he points out that “at that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him.” (Baldwin 336) Jessie’s love for his father stems from his father introducing him to the hatred which he carries with him in his adulthood. 

            In his adulthood, when Jessie cannot get an erection, he finally gets one by recounting the story of a black man getting lynched. Jessie “[thinks] of the morning and grab[s] her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whisper[s], as he stroke[s] her, as he [takes] her, [and says] “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.” (Baldwin 338) He is turned on by hate and then makes love to his wife. Yet, he only thinks about a white mob lynching a black man. Not only is the act of lovemaking made possible because of hate towards the black population, but even during the act of lovemaking Jessie does not think about his wife, and thinks about the lynching. He is literally in love with hate. 

            The contrast between love and hate makes the readers despise Jessie as it reveals his personality which involves only unreasonable hatred to his core, even while lovemaking.