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The short story “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin explores white supremacy and racism through the eyes of Jesse, a character that is shown as both a man and a young boy in the story. This story depicts a horrendous torture scene of an innocent black man, which his father exposes him to, in hopes that it would solidify Jesse’s views on African Americans, regardless of his young age. The reader is placed into Jesse’s mind as a man, and the reader witnessed his bigoted views which all began on that fateful day at the “picnic”.
At first glance Jesse may look like a powerful white male who uses white supremacy as a weapon for his hate driven crusade against the black people in his community; however, in reality he is actually another victim of that very same concept because it not only controls his thoughts, but also his actions. Throughout this essay I will explore the ways in which Jesse, who one would expect to be free, is actually chained to structures of oppression, and how the prisoner that Jesse prods, finds a moment to assert his voice and be heard.
According to Elizabeth Martinez in “What is White Supremacy?” white supremacy and racism are deeply rooted in history, beginning with the establishment of the U.S. as a nation through conquest and genocide. Due to this history, white families like Jesse’s in the 1800s were extremely bigoted and racist. This was the social norm.
The story begins with Jesse in bed with his wife, attempting to sleep but instead being confronted with many conflicting thoughts involving blacks. These conflicting thoughts include hatred, belittlement, sexual attraction, disgust, domination, fear of a black revolt, and entitlement. Just the mere fact that these thoughts are keeping Jesse from getting sleep shows that he is chained to structures of oppression that he was exposed to as a young boy. His recollection of prodding the black prisoner with the cattle prod becomes relevant within the story, and although Jesse believes that he is asserting his dominance over this black prisoner during this time, it is really him that is oh so bothered by the other black prisoners’ singing, which is another way that he is chained. Hatred is exhausting, and after what Jesse’s father exposed him to as a boy, he must suffer waves of disgust and hatred, followed by a peculiar sense of attraction towards black women, and a strong feeling of entitlement as a white male.
One exceptional moment within the story was when the prisoner asserted himself in order to make his voice be heard. “You going to call our women by their right names yet. And those kids ain’t going to stop singing. We going to keep on singing until every one of you miserable white mothers go stark raving out of your minds” (Baldwin). This psychological influence that the prisoners’ songs had over Jesse showed that Jesse was the slave, a slave to the social norms and mental entanglement of racism that he had learned throughout his life surrounded by bigotry.
Jesse truly believes he is a “protector”. “He was only doing his duty: protecting white people from the niggers and the niggers from themselves” (Baldwin), this shows his sense of entitlement. His sense of entitlement also shines through when he envisions himself as the man holding the knife in the horrific torture scene. Already engrained in his young mind is the idea that he would always be the man holding the knife, and never the man being hanged.
Martinez explains that the U.S. is one of the first countries that have people born racist.
With that being said, these racist ideas must be placed into children’s’ heads by their parents. One cannot surely say the full reason behind why Jesse’s parents brought him to the “picnic” at such a young age, but I can infer that it was so that he could feel a sense of community, mobbing up against a black man, and the entire black race. This scene explains why Jesse is so bigoted at an older age, and why he carries such hatred in his heart. For a child to witness a large group of people that look like him going against a man that doesn’t look like him, ideas involving entitlement, superiority, and a completely skewed sense of what is humane, become engrained into his mind that never leave. The journal entry “Children, Race and Racism: How Race Awareness Develops” states that “children who develop in this way are robbed of opportunities for emotional and intellectual growth, stunted in the basic development of the self, so that they cannot experience or accept humanity” (Sparks). Sparks researched things similar to Jesse’s experience through the questioning and observation of children in today’s society involving racism. The conclusion was “at a young age, children become conscious of being part of a group different from other groups. They want to know more about their own group and have public expressions of their groupness, and they develop a sense of pride in their identity and identify with well-known role models” (Sparks). This phenomenon was definitely displayed throughout the torture scene as the reader was stuck in young Jesse’s mind.
African slaves during the 1800s were not only physically imprisoned, but mentally, due to the fact that they were not allowed to get an education. They were isolated from society so that they could not gain any sort of knowledge, which whites believed could have resulted in a revolt.
This parallels the way that Jesse is mentally imprisoned by structures of oppression. He does not allow himself to see blacks as human beings, which Martinez explains was a defense mechanism for whites during these extreme times of oppression of blacks. This is described as a way for whites to not hold guilt for the way they treated blacks. According to Sparks, this mental block that Jesse is experiencing is only hindering his own potential in the long run. Not being able to fully experience or accept humanity plagues Jesse in his older years, and he is unable to sleep, up at night with hate filled thoughts coursing through his small mind. I certainly believe that Jesse will continue to be chained by his own beliefs for the rest of his life, and I also believe that the black characters in the story, “a whole tribe, pumping out kids, it looked like, every damn five minutes, and laughing and talking and playing music like they didn’t have a care in the world” (Baldwin), are freer than Jesse in the end.
Racism still exists today, on a wide scale. Sparks mentions how racism can only be left in the past if children grow up in racist free societies. “The arrogance of asserting that God gave white people (primarily men) the right to dominate everything around them still haunts our society and sustains its racist oppression. Today we call it the arrogance of power and it can be seen in all U.S. relations with other countries.” (Martinez). Due to the import of Africans to be used as slaves in the 1800s, white men have always felt a sense of dominance over people of color. This skewed belief is perpetuated onto their children, continuing the cycle. Baldwin’s gruesome story of a white mob brutally torturing and murdering an innocent black man is tragic, but the true tragedy lies in the fact that Jesse will never be the same after witnessing this horrific act.
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