Going to Meet the Author: The Lynching of James Baldwin

StoriesOn one hand, James Baldwin's short story "Going to Meet the Man" seems fairly straight forward. A deputy sheriff in the changing south remembers his family taking him to the lynching of a black man with the same air of excitement someone might experience on a family picnic. The details are both gruesome and disturbing, but there doesn't seem to be any hidden message, at least at first glance. However, by reading a little deeper possibilities open and Baldwin's tale of dying Old South sensibilities takes on another layer of meaning. While "Going to Meet the Man" clearly repeats themes speckled throughout the bulk of Baldwin's writing output, one small detail of the narrative could hint at a more obscure message, a three-cushion shot such as Hemingway described.

Before the black man is brutally disfigured we are given his description through the eyes of the story's main character, Jesse, as a child:
He saw the forehead, flat and high, with a kind of arrow of hair in the center, like he had, like his father had; they called it a widow's peak; and the mangled eye brows, the wide nose, the closed eyes, and the glinting eye lashes and the hanging lips, all streaming with blood and sweat.

A widow's peak had also been a prominent feature of the main character in Baldwin's earlier work, "Go Tell It on the Mountain". It is mentioned when the young protagonist John Grimes studies his face in a mirror:
His father had always said that his face was the face of Satan - and was there not something - in the lift of the eyebrow, in the way his rough hair formed a V on his brow - that bore witness to his father's words?

From what Baldwin reveals of himself in his autobiographical essays, we know this passage is not far from a self portrait. Further, we see a widow's peak in photographs of Baldwin, so we know it was one of his own physical traits.

From his short novel "Go Tell It on the Mountain" forward, Baldwin's writing dealt almost exclusively with racial or sexual oppression, speaking with power because it stemmed from lived experiences in Baldwin's own alienation. As "Go Tell It on the Mountain" dealt with the semi-autobiographical plights of the Harlem black, "Giovanni's Room", published in 1956 dealt with semi-autobiographical plights of the homosexual white. In reference to the latter, Baldwin once stated, "That was something I had to do; I had to work through it."

In light of Baldwin's tendency to include autobiographical elements in his work, a question is raised. Could this reference to a widow's peak in "Going to Meet the Man" indicate a connection between the black man who is lynched and Baldwin himself? Is Baldwin making an autobiographic statement, and if so, to what end? Is this a purely self-centered statement or might it be interpreted with a more universal view?

The first section of "Going to Meet the Man" introduces Jesse, a small town deputy sheriff in a changing South. Because of the changes taking place, he finds himself both impotent and unable to sleep. Earlier that day Jesse had brutalized a black man in the jail, the "ring leader" for a group of black protesters. Before falling unconscious, the black man reminded Jesse of an incident years before when as a boy he had defied him for showing disrespect for his grandmother. This memory fuels Jesse's unrest and paranoia because although he believes he and his fellow whites are soldiers "out-numbered, fighting to save the civilized world," but ultimately he knows they cannot succeed because they have become "accomplices in a crime."

Jesse recalls one of the spirituals the black protestors had sung. It came "flying up at him" from "out of the darkness . . . out of nowhere." The song triggers the memory of a pivotal event in Jesse's life, and this story begins with another evening when he cannot sleep. Jesse's parents had told him they were going on a family picnic, but what he actually witnesses is the mutilation, castration, and burning of a black man accused of raping a white woman. A festive feeling is in the air and Jesse notes a strange beauty on his mother's face. He experiences the greatest joy of his life and a deep love for his father who "carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever."

Jesse is changed by this sadistic memory and "his nature again returned to him". His manhood and sexual potency seem linked to brutality and symbolically Jesse becomes the "nigger" raping his own wife, "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." He labors over his wife until the morning when he hears a vehicle coming up the driveway, possibly a call back to reality and a moment when Jesse may have become more aware of his own guilt.

Beyond the inclusion of Baldwin's distinctive widow's peak, elements of the story do seem to support Baldwin could have, consciously or unconsciously, placed himself within the narrative as the black man who was lynched. On a symbolic level, Baldwin himself had been mutilated, castrated, and burned. Although Baldwin's mutilation had not been literal, he had been verbally mutilated his entire life. Baldwin was not physically castrated, but because of his homosexuality he had difficulty expressing himself fully as a sexual being. He was not burned like the black man in his story, but Baldwin's sexuality did force him to live in shadows, darker than he would have normally been if he had merely been black.

Baldwin's father was a strict lay preacher who not only expressed his disdain for whites but abused his son both emotionally and physically. This symbolic mutilation followed Baldwin throughout his life and formed the inspiration for the young John Grimes in "Go Tell It on the Mountain".
In the eye there was a light that was not the light of Heaven, and the mouth trembled, lustful and lewd, to drink deep of the wines of Hell. He stared at his face as though it were, as indeed it soon appeared to be, the face of a stranger, a stranger who held secrets that John could never know. And, having thought of it as a stranger might, and tried to discover what other people saw. But he saw only details; two great eyes, and a broad, low forehead, and the triangle of his nose, and his enormous mouth, and the barely perceptible cleft in his chin, which was, his father said, the mark of the devil's little finger. These details did not help him, for the principle of their unity was undiscoverable, and he could not tell what he most passionately desired to know: whether his face was ugly or not.

Along with this character, Baldwin himself dreamed of being "beautiful, tall and popular," someone who could become a poet or a college president or even a famous movie star.

In "The Devil Finds Work" Baldwin recalls, "My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him." The depth of his low self image is apparent in his attempt to come to grips with his father's criticism of Baldwin (and his mother) in this passage from "The Devil Finds Work":
So, here, now, was Bette Davis, on that Saturday aft
ernoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I was astounded. I had caught my father, not in a lie, but in an infirmity. For, here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich: and she was ugly. I felt exactly the same way I felt, just before this moment, or just after, when I was in the stre
et, playing, and I saw an old, very black, and very drunk woman stumbling up the sidewalk, and I ran upstairs to make my mother come to the window and see what I had found: You see? You see? She's uglier than you, Mama! She's uglier than me!

Consistent with universal elements of Baldwin's work, in his mind this symbolic physical mutilation extended beyond himself to include all blacks. In "James Baldwin's God: Sex, Hope, and Crisis in Black Holiness Culture", Clarence Hardy observes:
Ugliness does not simply describe a lack of attractiveness; in the context of Baldwin's life, ugliness is linked with a blackness that circumscribes and restricts the life chances of those who labor within its concealment and are unable to give or accept love.

In "Going to Meet the Man" the lynched man was literally castrated. In real life, the difficulties surrounding Baldwin's homosexuality in a sense left him symbolically castrated. Several of Baldwin's major works involve a character who must resolve issues related to his homosexuality. John in "Go Tell It on the Mountain" has sexual feelings for Elisha which are in conflict with his involvement in religion. In "Giovanni's Room" David cannot resolve his concerns over public opinion about his masculinity with his own homosexual feelings. The relationship between Rufus and Eric in "Another Country" was doomed by Rufus' inability to accept his feelings for another man. Although all three of these examples are also related to self-acceptance, an extension of Baldwin's problems with self image based on the symbolic physical mutilation previously mentioned, each character is unable to fully realize themselves as a sexual being because of outside constraints, both real and perceived. Each character's inability to accept their true sexual identity left them emasculated.

In his study of gay self-representation in fiction, David Bergman argues Baldwin carefully portrays all potentially gay main characters as bisexual. They are never depicted as "'faggots', by which Baldwin means exclusively and effeminately homosexual." This line of separation seems to echo Baldwin's own similar struggles. Baldwin finds it difficult to represent his characters as fully homosexual, much as he struggled with labeling himself as such.

Once the black man had been castrated, "the crowd rushed forward, tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing." Once the man had been castrated, his sexuality being cut away, he became something which could be consumed by the general population. He had already been a spectacle, but remained unapproachable because his sexuality made him a complete being. In a similar fashion, the emasculation of Baldwin was necessary before the general public could approach his other parts.

African male homosexuals have been shadowy figures in American Literature; they have been present, but not always seen or acknowledged. Melvin Dixon and Kendall Thomas argue the James Baldwin remembered and canonized by some is a man stripped of his homosexuality. Baldwin expressed his thoughts on homosexuality and race in a 1986 interview with Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice (published in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, 1989):
A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he's black or she's black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it's simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live.

Because the character had already been born black, the process of burning would not have been necessary to change his skin color. The burning is something which was done to him, and therefore might represent some other process. Perhaps the process of burning the lynched man could represent the gay black man's relegation to the shadows. Through fire, Baldwin is refined and made presentable; his sins are left in the dark corners and do not need to be faced.

While the man in the story is being burned because he has been accused of raping a white woman, this is only an accusation and its heterosexual implications, if we accept the lynched black man represents Baldwin, could represent how some readers would like to impose a "normal" sexual orientation upon writers they admire, possibly in an attempt to ignore and make homosexuality a non-issue.

Baldwin's own feelings about sexual relations between a black man and a white woman, and between two men, might have been characterized by Leo in "Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone". Leo recalls these possibilities, sex with a white woman and sex with a man, as the two forbidden desires of his life. If this story followed Baldwin's tendency to inject his own views and feelings into those of his characters, Leo's feelings might reveal the author viewed these desires and actions as taboo.

Burning is the final part the lynching sequence in "Going to Meet the Man". The things which had not been addressed by the crowd's mutilation were "taken care of by the fire". In a parallel manner, that which the public could not otherwise contain enough to face through symbolic mutilation and castration of Baldwin could be made dark and thereby relegated to the secrecy and anonyminity of the shadows. In the story Jesse recalls, "The head was caved in, one eye was torn out, one ear was hanging. But one had to look carefully to realize this, for it was, now, merely, a black charred object in the black, charred ground."

James Baldwin, once sanitized and repackaged for the masses, is left merely an object, an author without an unpleasant human reality attached. But upon looking more closely, we can see how this view leaves the reality of Baldwin twisted and mangled.

If the lynched black man does represent Baldwin, what role does Jesse play in the story's symbolism? The role of the crowd seems obvious enough, they are the masses who read, criticize, and ultimately seek to categorize Baldwin. But could Jesse serve some role other than a part of the crowd?

While Jesse seemed to feel a loss associated with the fading Old South, where blacks were relegated to a lower, almost non-human class, he also seemed to feel some guilt over his participation as an accomplice in "the crime". Both in his abuse of the black protestor and his observation of the lynching, Jesse recalled a moment of looking into each victim's eyes. Ultimately, we may believe Jesse will never feel fully justified for his role in both these crimes and will be required to live with or oppress this feeling of guilt for the rest of his life.

In a similar manner, members of the white culture today must deal with their participation in crimes perpetuated against blacks in the past. Whether they were direct participants or merely onlookers, feelings of guilt will be present. Each person might have different methods of dealing with these feelings. Like Jesse, we can attempt to suppress these feelings, or we may choose to perpetuate these crimes directly through our own actions. Therefore, Jesse could be said to represent the individual, the member of the crowd. He may or may not have been the one perpetuating the crime, but he will still have to deal with it on a personal level, one way or another.

Regardless of Baldwin's conscious intentions in writing "Going to Meet the Man", which we do not find clearly explained by Baldwin himself within his published works or personal interviews, the piece can easily lend itself to a broad interpretation as Baldwin's own commentary on his life and times. Accepted interpretations of Baldwin's other works show the personal revelation he often infused into his writ
ing. We know enough of Baldwin's life to see he was clearly abused as a child, made to feel worthless, and these actions brought on a struggle with self acceptance and identity which followed and plagued Baldwin throughout his life. We know through dir
ect self revelation that Baldwin lived and struggled with living a gay lifestyle. We also know through history both blacks and gays were generally unaccepted and persecuted by the largely white American culture.

Baldwin placed himself and his experiences inside his stories to lend depth and truth to his writing. However, it is important to note Baldwin did not ultimately see himself or his characters as victims. If Baldwin did intend the lynched man in "Going to Meet the Man" to represent himself, it would be important to remember the larger message of hope and healing which is central to Baldwin's corpus of writing. We have to remember the great amount of sympathy he conveys for all the marginalized, not limited to blacks or gays.

In "Critical Theory Today" Lois Tyson points out the difficulties of interpreting a piece as though the author is projecting his unconscious desires, fears, wounds, or unresolved conflicts onto a story's characters, setting, and events.
Psychoanalyzing an author in this manner is a difficult undertaking, and our analysis must be carefully derived by examining the author's entire corpus as well as letters, diaries, and any other biographical material available.

Clearly an isolated piece is bound to present an incomplete picture, but it doesn't necessarily follow psychological information cannot be found within a single work; especially since the same themes occur in Baldwin's other pieces.

Noting the political and social agendas of Baldwin's other works, it does not require a large leap of faith to assume Baldwin had some personal agenda behind the writing of "Going to Meet the Man." But even if such an assumption were proved to be false, and it could be solidly refuted that Baldwin could not have had some subconscious intention for writing the story, one which served his own private internal struggles, nevertheless this story would still serve as an adequate framework for outlining an examination for lifelong struggles Baldwin faced as a black, gay man and a writer, as well as the struggles faced by others who struggled with labels of a similar kind.

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