A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
All that singing… They were singing to God. They were singing for mercy and they hoped to go to heaven, and he had even sometimes felt, when looking into the eyes of some of the old women, a few of the very old men, that they were singing for mercy for his soul, too.
This is a difficult story to talk about, and an even more difficult story to read. It’s violent and disturbing, but necessary too. The main character in “Going to Meet the Man” is Jesse, a police officer in the civil rights era south who has spent recent weeks bloodily fighting protests at the local courthouse. As the officer struggles to sleep one night, James Baldwin takes us into his memories and his mind. It’s as pathetic and evil a place as any in literature.
It’s not that Baldwin doesn’t run through all the typical excuses for Jesse. (He was raised by racists in a racist culture. He doesn’t know any better or any different. He’s just doing his job.) It’s that Baldwin makes it perfectly clear why none of those excuses matter. On one level Jesse is simply impotent and ignorant, but left alone with a helpless protester he becomes the embodiment of terror.
We have a lot of James Baldwin on our shelves and all of it is good, but if you’re not familiar with him and want a short encapsulation of his thought-provoking style, this story and some of the others in this collection are a great place to start.
Review by Matthew