Book/Author: Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965)
Age/Genre: Adult Short Story Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: I read some of this outside at a brewery, and having a nice environment to look around at while pondering the issues these stories bring up was very helpful.
Content Notes: Racism, racial slurs, violence, lynching, child death (not in this review)
I’ve been meaning to check out some of James Baldwin’s writing for a long time, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to start. Luckily, while perusing one of my local used book stores, I saw a couple of his books, and I decided it was time. For those of you who don’t know, James Baldwin is well known for his writing around racism in America from the 1950s-80s. He wrote novels, essays, plays, and short stories. I see quotes from Baldwin’s essays frequently, and Boise’s Black history museum had a display prominently featuring his work when I went a couple of years ago. I bought Going to Meet the Man, a collection of short stories, because I figured it would offer a digestible introduction to Baldwin’s work.
“The Rockpile” follows the Grimes family, who feature in several of Baldwin’s stories and books. John and Roy are sitting on a fire escape watching neighborhood kids play on a rockpile, and Roy decides he wants to join, despite his mother’s orders to stay put. When Roy gets hurt, we see some difficult family dynamics come into play, drawing attention to parental expectations of older siblings, relationships between children and stepparents, and parents who aren’t always on the same page.
“The Outing” is another story centering the Grimes family, this time in their community on a church outing. Gabriel Grimes is a deacon, and his children balance appeasing the adults while trying to have fun on this forced day trip. Both the Grimes stories reminded me of stories we’d read in middle school. Some of the lessons aren’t super clear, but the story focuses on relationships and personal interactions, with a large part of the message revolving around navigating differences and conflict.
“Previous Condition” follows Peter, a black man trying to find a place to stay. His Jewish friend rents a room in a boarding house for him, but when his race is discovered, he’s kicked out. The focus in this story isn’t on the events, but on the emotional turmoil that they cause. Several times, people suggest Peter fight the injustices he’s facing, but Peter has little faith that the system will protect him. He’s also exhausted and tired of fighting. He doesn’t want to have to defend his humanity, he just wants to be able to live.
In “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator shares the story of his brother, Sonny, who is much younger than him and is recently out of jail. The brothers struggle to connect, but are trying to understand each other. This story shows the cultural power of both religion and music, particularly in Harlem.
“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” is the longest piece in this work, and felt to me like it was part of a larger work, though it is complete on its own. The narrator is experiencing his last night in Paris before moving his family back to America for his career in movies and jazz. The narrator is black, with a swedish wife and an 8 year old son. He speculates on his fears about going back, and gives examples of how race functions differently in America and France. This part reminded me a lot of This Will Be My Undoing, because both Jesmyn Ward’s and Baldwin’s narrators experience relief from American racism in other countries, but still return home.
One of the sections that stuck out to me most in this piece was when the narrator talked about how much his wife, Harriet, and sister, Louisa, got along. Louisa is able to talk to Harriet more honestly than she’s ever been able to talk with a white woman, because Harriet feels it’s important to know the truth about her husband’s family’s experiences, while most white people must be protected from the truth of the world they live in. This story had me taking a ton of notes. Since the narrator is in a very speculative mindset, the shifts between timelines are very smooth, and the fact we get to see so many different moments in the narrator’s life really helps build a complete picture. I found out after I read the story that James Baldwin lived in Paris for a lot of his life, which probably contributed to the fact that this piece felt so “real.”
“Come out the Wilderness” is the only piece in this collection with a female protagonist. Ruth is a black woman dating a white man in New York. This story almost exclusively focuses on Ruth’s interactions with the men in her life, and their treatment of her as property. There are a lot of comparisons and references to slavery, as Ruth’s struggle to assert herself is deeply rooted in her family background. Baldwin wrote men a lot, but while reading this, I felt like he wrote Ruth with as much perception and understanding as he wrote his male characters.
There are two other stories in this collection, but I don’t really feel like I can give them paragraph summaries. They are what I see as the most difficult stories, containing violence (including against children) and the most visceral examples of racism. “The Man Child” in particular had me so shocked that I had to put the book down for a few days. I would have had the same reaction to “Going to Meet the Man,” but it was the last piece in the collection, so needing space to marinate didn’t seem as unnatural. Both of these stories are ones that I feel are best discussed with people who have read them – I won’t even talk to my husband about them until he reads them, and I usually ramble about what I’m reading all the time.
The stories in Going to Meet the Man are all full of passionate characters struggling to get by in a world stacked against them. Baldwin shows the reader gritty realities that aren’t easy to read, because they’re not easy to live. That’s the entire point. This collection illustrates real hardships, many of which are still experienced today. At the time of publication, stories featuring black people weren’t as likely to get widely circulated, and these stories offered a unique perspective that wasn’t seen in mass media as frequently. Even reading them today, I felt that the way Baldwin portrayed his characters’ experiences was unique and poignant. These stories are still relevant to current events, and are important for understanding where we’ve come from as a country and how much work still needs to be done. Needless to say, I’ll be reading more of Baldwin’s work. I’m thinking I’ll check out more of his fiction before reading his essays. His fictional works illustrate his points so clearly that I’m sure the essays dive super deep into race and class issues, and I believe that reading his stories and books first will help me understand the essays better.
Have you read any James Baldwin? Share your experiences in the comments!