Baldwin was known in his time for pushing the boundaries of what was considered "appropriate" for publication when it came to sexual themes and his portrayal of homosexual relationships in novels like Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room. The stories in Going to Meet the Manare no exception. In "The Outing," the major conflict for protagonist Johnnie is that the boy he loves, David, is after a girl named Sylvia. To make things even more complicated, David reciprocates Johnnie's feelings; however, David is bisexual and also attracted to Sylvia, and due to the pressures of society, is more inclined to pursue a relationship with Sylvia because it's a relationship he could engage in openly without risking ostracization.
In "The Man Child," Jamie and Eric's father's relationship is limited by the fact that Eric's father prioritizes an heir and a traditional nuclear family over the love he feels for his longtime friend and lover, Jamie. Jamie's love for Eric's father and his inability to express that love openly—combined with his knowledge that Eric's mother is barren and the fact that Eric is set to inherit not only his father's land, but all of Jamie's land that was bought from him by Eric's father—causes Jamie to feel like there is nothing left for him in this land. His bitterness drives him to kill Eric, ensuring that no one will inherit the land after his father dies.
In the final story, Jesse's sexuality is demonstrated to hinge on his deeply entrenched racism. At the beginning of the story, he's unable to perform sexually with his wife; however, after remembering a scene of castration and extreme violence at the hands of a white mob that he witnessed as a child, he gets his desire back. It is as if he can only perform sexually when he imagines the castration of black men, or imagines himself in the place of a black man.
Race is a central theme in James Baldwin's fiction and non-fiction, specifically the experience of black people in America. In every story in this anthology with the exception of "The Man Child," race relations and the black experience in America emerge as central themes. In "Previous Condition," Peter says,
There are times and places when a Negro can use his color like a shield. He can trade on the subterranean Anglo-Saxon guilt and get what he wants that way; or some of what he wants. He can trade on his nuisance value, his value as forbidden fruit; he can use it like a knife, he can twist it and get his vengeance that way. I knew these things long before I realized that I knew them and in the beginning I used them, not knowing what I was doing. Then when I began to see it, I felt betrayed. I felt beaten as a person. I had no honest place to stand.
Here, Peter is referring to his relationship with white friends and acquaintances in New York who even have guilt upon which to "trade" in the first place; as we see in other stories, the feeling of "white guilt" in the historical moment of these stories is far scarcer in the South. In "Sonny's Blues," the narrator teaches algebra in Harlem to young black men, and he observes how the perception of their race determines, in part, their futures:
These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.
When the narrator says that these boys only know darkness, it gestures to the fact that because of the color of their skin, their lived experience in America, the way they're treated by institutions and the places they are able to comfortably inhabit, will always be narrowed so long as the white man controls American society. This notion is explored through the narrator's expatriation in "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon." He says, "if I had never left America, I would never have met [Harriet] and would never have established a life of my own, would never have entered my own life. For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives" (Baldwin). When the narrator says that his life only became his own when he left America, he demonstrates how in America, white hegemony claims ownership of the lives of black people by making race and power dynamics a factor in every facet of their lives.
Religious themes and biblical references are frequent in the work of Baldwin, who was a preacher from ages fourteen to seventeen. His references are primarily to Old Testament texts. For example, in "The Outing," he refers to the story of Isaac and Abraham from the Old Testament, where God calls upon Abraham to kill his only son Isaac in an act of faith. In that same story, Baldwin demonstrates a critical ire for religious institutions in America. He regards the "saints" of the church as ostentatious and often hypocritical. Baldwin has expressed in interviews that Christian religion is the greatest evidence of a prolonged segregation in America, quoting Malcolm X in saying that "the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday."
Despite being critical of organized Christianity, Baldwin also utilizes it as a way to communicate the depth of meaning in his character's actions. For example, at the end of "Sonny's Blues" when Sonny places the drink his brother bought him on top of his piano and begins his second set, the cup is described as "the very cup of trembling" which is another Old Testament reference from the book of Isaiah, specifically to a moment in which God relieves the faithful of their suffering, saying, "Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again" (Isaiah 51:22). The placement of the reference gives a religious resonance to Sonny's playing.
New York City
A major theme of Baldwin's work is the danger black people face in America. With the exception of the two stories about white people, all of Baldwin's protagonists live or have lived in New York City; and for of them, New York City has been a hugely antagonistic presence in their lives. The density and pace of life in New York often push Baldwin's black characters to the margins. For example, in "Come Out the Wilderness" Baldwin describes Ruth's drive into midtown: "When she left the house he was sleeping. Because she was late for work and because it was raining, she dropped into a cab and was whirled out of the streets of the Village—which still suggested, at least, some faint memory of the individual life—into the grim publicities of midtown Manhattan. Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven." In this passage, Baldwin conjures the image of the tower of Babel, posing New York as an intrusion into heaven and an abomination, which also links New York City to another of Baldwin's themes, religion.
Another example of New York's antagonism is conjured by the narrator of "Sonny's Blues" as he rides to his apartment with Sonny after picking him up from jail. He describes their drive up through Manhattan: "So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea." This passage, like most of Baldwin's descriptions of New York in the collection, reflects his perspective that New York is an antagonistic, unlivable place. Although the language he uses to describe the wealthy Upper West Side is quite different from his descriptions of the familiar streets of Harlem—"lifeless elegance" and "killing streets," respectively—the results are nonetheless the same; both descriptions suggest the neighborhoods' inability to sustain life. The unnamed narrator in "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" parrots "Sonny's Blues," calling New York City "the great, unfinished city" and describing it as an "enormous, cunning, and murderous beast, ready to devour, impossible to escape."
Coming of Age
The innocence of childhood and the loss of that innocence emerges as a central theme in "The Rockpile," "The Man Child," "Sonny's Blues," "Previous Condition," "Come Out the Wilderness," and "Going to Meet the Man." In "The Rockpile," Roy is unaware that his actions will ultimately impact his brother and not just himself, simply because his brother was fathered by a different man. Johnnie's distrust of the rockpile, which verges on fear, reflects the fact that he's had to grow up faster than his brother, and that his childhood was truncated by the estrangement he feels in Gabriel's house. In "The Man Child," Eric pretends to be asleep while the adults conduct a tense conversation full of subtext he doesn't understand. When Eric is killed by Jamie, he is still a child, but in the final moments of his life, his sobs are described as "unchildish," as if in his last minutes, his innocence is ruptured.
The most vivid scene devoted to the theme of childhood occurs in "Sonny's Blues" when the narrator describes the quiet afternoons of his childhood that he so longs for:
Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see. For a minute they’ve forgotten the children. Maybe a kid is lying on the rug, half asleep. Maybe somebody’s got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly stroking the kid’s head. Maybe there’s a kid, quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in the corner. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop—will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around the living room, talking about where they’ve come from, and what they’ve seen, and what’s happened to them and their kinfolk.
The scene describes the security of a family and the comfort of elderly people relating their experiences, all they've managed to live through that gives hope to the younger ones in the room that they can have a long life, too.
Music and Memory through Sound
Sound in general, and the way sound imprints on one's memory and is associated with memory, is a central theme of "Sonny's Blues" and returns as a theme in "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon." The protagonists of both stories are jazz musicians. One, Sonny, is still burgeoning, and the second, the unnamed narrator, has found immense success, fame, and fortune.
In "Sonny's Blues," when the narrator's mother describes his father's experience the night his brother died, it's not about what he sees, it's about what he hears: "Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day." And again, when the narrator describes what haunts his wife most about their two-year-old daughter's affliction and eventual death from polio, it's not anything visual; it's the sound of her scream when she fell after her legs first gave out. He says, "the reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound" (Baldwin).
But in the same story, Baldwin demonstrates how sound also has the capacity to remove suffering. In the final scene, the narrator attends his brother's gig in the Village, and there Sonny and his bandmates play the blues. As Sonny plays, the narrator describes the set as a conversation between the musicians using their instruments to communicate. The narrator sends up a drink for Sonny between sets, and Sonny sets it on top of his piano and starts playing the second set. The drink shakes, and the narrator refers to it as "the very cup of trembling." The "cup of trembling" is a reference to a moment in the Old Testament in which God relieves the faithful of their suffering, saying, "Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again" (Isaiah 51:22). Thus, Baldwin elevates music to a spiritual, almost supernatural force capable of momentarily lifting suffering from those who truly experience it.
The title of the story, "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," is also a title of an American folk song and figures into several folks songs as a refrain, including but not limited to "Tell Old Bill" and "'Dis Morning, 'Dis Evening, So Soon." Many American folk songs originated and were authored by African people enslaved in America, and were later co-opted by white singers and musicians. Like "Sonny's Blues," "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" focuses on sound over sight. When the narrator returns to New York, a city he dreads so much, he recalls, "I was not aware of its towers now. We were in the shadow of the elevated highway but the thing which most struck me was neither light nor shade, but noise" (Baldwin). Noise, rather than visual spectacle, affects another of Baldwin's protagonists the most when it comes to triggering memory or emotion.
A theme that stems from the more general theme of race and race relations is the theme of emasculation. One of the methods white police officers use to control and intimidate black men is by putting them in situations where they have a choice between their pride and their lives. Black men are often forced to swallow their pride and forgo their role in their relationship as a protector when they are faced with the authority of the law. In "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," the narrator tells Vidal about such a situation involving his sister. His sister was driving around with her fiancé and another couple they were friends with. The woman in the other couple had lighter skin than the rest of them, and when their car was pulled over by police, the officers didn't believe she was black. "They made her get out and stand in front of the headlights of the car and pull down her pants and raise her dress—they said that was the only way they could be sure. And you can imagine what they said, and what they did—and they were lucky, at that, that it didn’t go any further. But none of the men could do anything about it. Louisa couldn’t face that boy again, and I guess he couldn’t face her. ... You know, I know what that boy felt, I’ve felt it. They want you to feel that you’re not a man, maybe that’s the only way they can feel like men, I don’t know."
This idea that emasculating black men is the only way white men, specifically white police officers, can feel like men, is echoed in the title story of the collection, "Going to Meet the Man." Jesse's impotence acts as a primary axis upon which the story turns and demonstrates that, by the end, the only way Jesse can truly become aroused is at the expense of black men. He remembers, before the mob executed the hanging man he watched die as a child, that one of the white men in town cut off the man's genitals and threw them in the fire. The imagery is far from subtle here. The only way Jesse's "manhood" can function is at the thought of a black man being violently castrated.
Going to Meet the Man Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Going to Meet the Man is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.