Sunday, April 3, 2016

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

In every way, white society emasculates the black man

These eight stories are glimpses into people’s lives.  They are about a repressed boy from a Pentecostal home, a struggling actor who can never feel at ease, a math teacher trying to do right by his heroin addicted brother, and an aspiring woman fearful her lover will abandon her. What seven of the eight stories have in common is the negative effect society’s racism has upon people just trying to build a life, and the way racism insidiously corrodes self confidence on both sides of the equation. My favorite stories were “Previous Condition” and “Come Out the Wilderness.” “Previous Condition” is about an actor who wants to live a fulfilling artistic life, but is unable to because everywhere he goes in white New York; he is reminded of his inferior status, his sub humanity. He can’t rent an apartment, he can’t raise his voice to his white girlfriend without fear of being lynched, he cannot participate in artistic society. Only when he travels uptown to Harlem he can be freer, but only a little, because there he cannot live the intellectually and emotionally fulfilled life he longs for. In either world, he cannot be who he is. “Come Out the Wilderness” is about a professional young secretary, who supports a white lover and is terrified of his leaving her. Meanwhile, the professional black man at her workplace is interested in her. She is aware she is wasting her life, but can’t help herself.

Boy, were these stories bleak. In Baldwin’s world, there is no hope. The characters are pushed to the point of desperation. An air of sadness permeates this collection. I’m not completely sure these stories were my cup of tea. Perhaps my expectations were too high – I was expecting each story to be a literary masterwork, and the collection was uneven. Some of the stories felt a little dated, at times a little false. The writing was old fashioned, although monumental and authoritative. The prose reminded me of Flannery O’Connor but without the humor. A reoccurring incident is the innocent child being called a racial slur. Also policemen play a role in most of these stories. 

The passion behind the words and the declaiming rhythm of the sentences make me interested in reading Baldwin’s nonfiction. I think to really understand the rhythms of the sentences and the inspiration for the titles and imagery the reader would need a thorough grounding in the Bible and gospel music. 

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