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I generally prefer reading novels to collections of short stories, but James Baldwin is such an incredible writer than I had to read this, having loved everything else of his I have read. It didn't disappoint. Hard to review, but I suppose it's a gritty, warts and all portrayal of humanity and the inner hopes, dreams and disappointments of "ordinary people." Racism is a prominent theme in Baldwin's work and, sadly, every bit as relevant today as it was when he was writing. Baldwin's genius as a writer is in creating characters which feel like real people you have actually encountered. I sometimes catch myself wondering about them and what happened to them as though they actually existed! This isn't my favourite work by this writer, but still great and I would recommend.
I bought Going to Meet the Man about a year but somehow left it to gather dust on my book shelf. I only picked it up last week as bedtime reading. Boy, was I mistaken! Going to Meet the Man is definitely not bed time reading.
The book is a collection of short stories: The Rockpile, The Outing, The Man Child, Previous condition, Sonny's blues, Come out of the Wilderness and, of course, Going to Meet the Man. These stories explore the nuances of human condition: love, racism and murder.
My favourite stories are This Morning, This Evening, So Soon and Going to Meet the Man. In `This Morning', a successful Paris-based Black American musician/actor plans to return to the US with his Swedish wife, Harriet, and their mixed race son, Paul. As our musician comes to terms with his return to the Old Country, his fears (and history) now become apparent; Europe was not just an escape from a stifling American form of racism but his redemption. He had become a man in every sense of the word in Europe. Alas, this was an opportunity that was denied him in the US. However, he wistfully contemplates his decision and decides to return to the US all the same.
Going to Meet the Man was simply haunting. It is set sometime in the 1950's in the American South. The Civil Rights movement is in full swing and Black protesters engage in a sit-in and singing session at the jailhouse, where one of their lot has been arrested. The Deputy Sheriff, Jesse, handles the situation the only way that he knows how to: with extreme violence. Alas, violence does not work. The Sheriff then remembers an event from his childhood: the lynching of a black man. Baldwin does not describe the circumstances that led to the lynching. Instead, his description of the macabre, barbarous, dark lynching `party' itself is laid out in exquisite detail. Young Jesse thought that the black body hanging from the tree was the `most beautiful and most terrible' thing that he had ever seen. One sees the lynching through the eyes of an eight-year old boy. It is fascinating, wicked, twisted and somehow captivating. The lynching is over almost as soon as it had begun. The folks retire and have a picnic after the event. What a bizarre affair! All I could think about when reading this story was the song, Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday.
Going to Meet the Man is the first Baldwin novel that I have read. He, like Langston Hughes, my favourite American author, uses the metaphor of escape to Europe (to France) in order to discover oneself. Yes, Europe was not perfect but the Old World had done away with lynching by the 1930's. Baldwin is a master story teller. In Going to Meet the Man, while he uses words to paint a most haunting portrait of man at his worst yet there is no judgment. The reader has to distil his own meaning from the work. At the end of the story, it was not clear to me who the victim was - the black man who was lynched or the child who was made to witness and internalise such a horrible event.
I first read this book 35 years ago. I had a hard copy but got rid of it when I downsized. James Baldwin is one of my favourite authors and I'm happy I now have an electronic copy, bought at a decent price also.
This book does not have one plot per se, as it is a collection of short stories. However, there is a through-line in that all the narratives have to do with the same thing. Mr. Baldwin's stories all relate, directly or indirectly, to the lived experiences of Blacks living in New York City during the 1950's and 60's. Each builds and expands on the themes of the previous story as the reader goes along. To say that the stories are about racism is a gross oversimplification. In many ways they are allegories about American ideals gone awry in the face of a system that ultimately diminishes all its citizens by devaluing the humanity of the race of some of it citizens. The stories include: The Rockpile, The Outing, The Man Child, Previous Condition, Sonny's Blues, This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, Come Out the Wilderness, and Going to meet the Man.
The first stories, The Rockpile and the Outing, speak of faith and family, incorporated elements of African American identity playing out against the backdrop of mid-century Harlem. A young boy learns resentment at the feet of a step-father and the early seeds of manhood on the shoulder of a close friend. The White characters that inhabit Man Child speak of an underlying bitterness and resentment that fuel grotesque acts. This story strikes this reader as being an allegory about mainstream America in the midst of war, pilfering the lives of her sons, overseas and at home, over battles of entitlement. Previous Condition chronicles the life of the young creative intellectual struggling for identity in a society of well-meaning While liberalism and Black misapprehension. Sonny's Blues plays the mournful song of hopelessness and helplessness of a young Black man, accompanied by the sorrowful strains of his struggle with addiction in the Harlem mid-century jazz scene. This Morning, This evening, So soon, powerfully presents the slow, impotent rage of a Black father who must sacrifice the innocence of his son at the altar of racism. Come Out the Wilderness' protagonist struggles with self-worth and identity. Going to Meet the Man, subversively portrays a man trapped by the guilt of a southern tradition, taking his family out for a picnic.
Fifty years hence, in the location and settings of these stories, America has changed. The author James Baldwin, who died in 1987, did not live to see the ascent of Colin Powell, Robert L. Johnson, Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama; evidence that almost certainly things have changed for the better, for many of us. But in many ways it remains distressingly and disturbingly the same. A system that villifies the Black poor for their poverty, and personifies young Black males as violent criminals, continues to perpetuate the kind of psychic pain and anger that permeated much of Baldwin's work. Going to Meet the Man should be required reading, if for no other reason than to remind us of what we must continually strive to change.
I purchased this collection in order to read the titular short story. I was not disappointed, and in fact, I was shocked. I know that James Baldwin's work is part of the Black cultural and art renaissance that seems to be happening right now, but there seems to only be a focus on his interviews, not so much on his writing. This story (and I feel that I can safely assume that other stories in this collection) reinforce the theoretical framework that Baldwin applies to his outlook of American concerning racism, violence, and intolerance. Read it for yourself because he has much more to say than what he has shared in television interviews.
James Baldwin skillfully handles tense and point of view. His insights into human nature are forged in a racist crucible. All that is dross has been burned away, leaving pure literary gold. He was (and is) a national treasure.