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Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin – A must-read

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) French title: Face à l’homme blanc.

book_club_2For July, our Book Club had picked a collection of eight short stories by James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man. Written between 1948 and 1965, these short stories were first published in magazines and totally blew me away. This is going to be one of my best reads for 2015. For those who wouldn’t know, James Baldwin is an African-American writer, born in Harlem in 1924. He was gay and struggled with the two prejudices of being black and gay in America. He left New York in 1948, settled in Paris and spent most of his later life in France. It’s important to know these biographical elements to understand his short stories. Here’s the list of the stories.

  • The Rockpile
  • The Outing
  • The Man child
  • Previous Condition
  • Sonny’s Blues
  • This Morning, This Evening, So Soon
  • Come Out the Wilderness
  • Going to Meet the Man

The Rockpile and The Outing feature the same characters, young black men in Harlem at the end of the 1940s. They show the life of the black community in Harlem, the codes, the importance of religion. If you’ve ever attended a service in Harlem or read a book by Chester Himes, this will ring a bell. Baldwin gives such a vivid picture of his neighborhood and of the complexity of being homosexual in this context.

After a moment, Johnnie moved and put his head on David’s shoulder. David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened.

All the stories give us an insight of what it was to be black in America in that time. Some are set in the South, some in New York and one in Paris. This Morning, This Evening, So Soon is the most powerful story of the collection as it encapsulates all the others and dissects the condition of Afro-Americans. In this story, the narrator is black, American, from Harlem, living in Paris and on the verge of going home. He’s a successful singer, he’s married to a Swedish woman, Harriet and they have a son together, Paul. Baldwin uses the French word to describe Paul, he’s a métis, which means mixed-race.

It’s their last moments in Paris and the narrator is worried and wary. He remembers how life was for him back home and he’s afraid to go back. He’s been living in Paris for twelve years and he fears that he’s forgotten to behave like a black man in front of Whites in America. He explains that twelve years in Paris have liberated him from the ingrained attitude he used to take in front of a White. When his sister comes to Paris and gets acquainted with Harriet, it’s the first time she can speak to a white woman as her equal. He describes the proper attitude to have to stay out of trouble: a white person expects a Black to be stupid and respond with obsequiousness. Any attitude out of this line might be perceived as rebellious and the consequences of rebellion are too hard to tempt fate and not comply. Our narrator isn’t sure he can pull off the right attitude anymore.

In several stories, Baldwin also describes love relationships between Blacks and Whites and the prejudices attached to them. White men have preconceived ideas of black women: they don’t respect them and there’s this presumption of them being slutty. Black women may be tempted to date a white guy to climb the social ladder faster but it has a cost. The other way round, white women who would marry a black man have a tough life because it’s seen as degrading. In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, the narrator is worried for his white wife Harriet. He wonders if she’ll be exposed to harsh racism for marrying him. They’ve lived peacefully in Paris, she doesn’t know what life will be in the USA.

The stories go from 1948 to 1965. The first stories are full of resignation. They show the discrimination against Blacks in housing, at work and the difficulty to step out of the comfort of Harlem. The black outsiders, the ones who try to make their life among the Whites are in survival mode and never really fit in. The last story, Going to Meet the Man was published in 1965. The fight for civil rights is ongoing and the Blacks stop submitting to fate. With this short story, we spend an uncomfortable time in the mind of a white policeman in a state of the Deep South. The Blacks are fighting for their rights; he starts having insomnia. He has more and more difficulty witnessing atrocities and taking part to the repression. Through him, we saw how racism is embedded in his mind since childhood.

Baldwin_Going_ManJames Baldwin describes people who live on edge. They live in fear. They are afraid of white people, of having the wrong attitude, of being seen as antagonistic in spite of them. In their mind eye, they constantly look over their shoulder, it’s like an instinct for survival. They have the impression that they live at the Whites’ mercy, that the law isn’t on their side. It’s like living in a dictatorship where the arbitrary is king. And yet, he’s not angry or rebellious. He’s analyzing with incredible lucidity and precision the damages done by racism on a psyche. The characters aren’t free. They are not free of being themselves when they go out of their neighborhood; they have to control themselves to fit in; they live with a strong and rooted fear. I’m white. I’ve never read any writer who could make you understand and feel so well what it is to be victim of racism and how deeply it affects the soul of the persons who are ostracized for the color of their skin.

Baldwin has a knack for psychological insight. He x-rays the black psyche and he manages to bring it to the reader, to make them see through other people’s eyes. I understood why James Brown’s singing Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud was a strong message. That is an accomplishment in itself. It is associated with a sensible analysis of the American and French societies and with a strong sense of place. Paris comes to life like in a book by René Fallet and New York is stunning as in Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos.

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. The people, so surrounded by heights that they had lost any sense of what heights were, rather resembled, nevertheless, these gray rigidities and also resembled, in their frantic motion, people fleeing a burning town.

The factual and moving description of the indelible marks that racism carves on someone’s soul will certainly stay with me. It is set in the USA and it is about African-Americans. But France doesn’t have a spotless record. The narrator of This Morning, This Evening, So Soon who lives in Paris says that the North-Africans immigrants are his kindred spirits. And he was right at the time (1960, in the middle of the war in Algeria) and unfortunately, he would be right today. Because, let’s face it, Islamic terrorism feeds the temptation to condemn someone on their “Arabic” looks. Because the police control you more often when your face says your family has roots in North Africa. Because the frequency of these controls leave permanent damages on someone’s identity. Because snide comments of ordinary racism you hear in the office, in your friend or family circle sometimes or on the streets are like a rampant disease, ready to spread further. And let’s not forget how hard it is for Christiane Taubira to be a black and female minister of justice.

I think Going to Meet the Man is a must-read for white American readers. It is also a must-read for white Europeans. We all need to face our history and our everyday life attitude.

If you’re not convinced yet that it’s worth breaking a #TBR20 oath, here’s a last quote, a taste of Baldwin’s marvelous style. It’s about jazz music.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order in it as it hits the air. What is evoked on him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

  1. July 27, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Tremendous review, Emma, really excellent. I’ve read Baldwin’s Another Country, which I would wholeheartedly recommend for its power, insight and characterisation. So much of what you say in your review chimes with my recollection of the themes in Another Country: the experience of being black in America in the 1960s (a decade or so later than the period in your stories); issues of race; perceptions of homosexuality; the experience of returning to the US after several years in Europe. Other things, too.

    I really like your commentary on Baldwin’s ability to depict people living on the edge. From what I know of his work that’s spot-on, he’s fearless and passionate writer.

    Like

    • July 27, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I have three other Baldwins on my virtual TBR and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.

      He’s amazing. I wonder why he’s not more famous (or I just missed him) The only reasons I see is that what he writes bothers people.
      Going to Meet the Man shows the violence done to black people at the time. He’s always factual, explanatory and never in anger. He could have been angry but he wasn’t. I admire his ability to see through appearances and analyse the situation.

      I wonder if Romain Gary and he knew each other. Gary’s biograph mentions that Jean Seberg met Baldwin in Paris but says nothing about Gary himself. They would have had things to discuss. I wonder what you’d think about White Dog.

      Like

      • July 28, 2015 at 9:03 am

        I don’t know why he’s more widely read as (sadly) many of the issues and prejudices he wrote about are all too relevant today.

        The Romain Gary is on my radar. I didn’t know about the link to Jean Seberg, that’s very interesting!

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        • July 28, 2015 at 9:14 pm

          Perhaps because we’d rather not know than face it.

          I’ll be interested to read your thoughts about White Dog.
          In Gary’s bio, they say that Seberg and Baldwin discussed the situation of black people in America and that he brought to her another point of view. (She was close to the Black Panthers, much to Gary’s despair. That features in White Dog as well)

          Like

  2. July 27, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Really a terrific review, Emma. It’s high time for a James Baldwin revival – or just leave out the “re,” since I don’t think he has ever received the attention he deserves. I have not read these stories, but will try to amend that soon. Another Country is probably my favorite of his books – one of my favorite American novels period.

    Christiane Taubira is awesome – I’ve been watching some videos of her taking her opponents apart with precision, wit, and incredible courage. I’m curious to read the book about slavery she wrote for her daughter.

    Like

    • July 27, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      He’d deserve a James Baldwin reading week. I’d love to read different reviews of his work.
      I guess from your comment that he’s not that widely read in the USA. He’s mostly out of print in French.
      It’s such a shame, especially these days. His message is to show our common humanity more than our differences. I would have loved to meet him.

      Christian Taubira is very courageous. Black, woman, from Guyane and in politics in this white Parisian macho world. Chapeau.

      Like

      • July 28, 2015 at 3:54 pm

        I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Baldwin is known here and read, but when people talk about great American writers his name rarely comes up; he doesn’t show up often in American literary journals or blogs (guilty!); and I don’t get the impression that he’s taught much except in specialized courses.

        Of course, it’s tough to be an artist in the U.S., and when one adds black and gay onto that – ouf. So many of our best artists depended upon France in order to flourish; we don’t even have a minister of culture, and our annual national arts budget is barely enough to buy a small Sisley.

        Like

        • July 28, 2015 at 8:13 pm

          I meant to add that it’s not for nothing, that Joan Baez line from her song The Altar Boy and the Thief: “And the cops cruise by wanting one last chance/To send Jimmy Baldwin back over to France.”

          Like

          • July 28, 2015 at 9:47 pm

            I didn’t know that song, I looked up the lyrics.
            Well, Gary says that black American felt free in Paris and I’ve seen a fantastic play about Miles Davis’s days in Paris with Juliette Greco and it gave the same vibe.

            That said, homosexuality was only decriminalized in France in 1981. And I’m ashamed of the spectacle it was to have the law on same sex marriage voted. The Irish can be proud of their referendum.

            Like

        • July 28, 2015 at 9:26 pm

          Grap the Lapels (who clicked on the like button above) left a comment in another of my blog entry about Baldwin. (here https://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/book-club-2015-2016-the-list/) She says he upsets her students when she teaches him. I can see why. He doesn’t shy away from violence if needed but he mostly shows that some of the most scarring violence is not always visible.

          I think I found Baldwin in the Guide du Routard about New York.

          You know how France works and the minister of culture is part of our DNA. The first one was Malraux, it started out with a big literary figure. I guess culture is financed differently in the US. You probably have more private fundations in that field than here.
          I’ve been to a jazz concert recently and it was performed by a French jazzman accompanied by two American blusmen. They’re old and they survive and live thanks to a charity that welcomes old bluesmen and jazzmen who don’t have a pension high enough to live. It found that very sad, you know.

          Like

    • July 30, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      Interestingly we read Balwin in school.

      Like

      • July 30, 2015 at 9:49 pm

        How old were you?

        Like

        • July 31, 2015 at 9:27 am

          17 or so.

          Like

          • July 31, 2015 at 6:49 pm

            So you read this in high school. Nice choice from the teacher.

            Like

  3. July 28, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    That is an excellent review. He’s a writer who’s never interested me, but I’m now reassessing that.

    I suspect he’s probably a little too still-relevant to be comfortable wider reading.

    Like

    • July 28, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks.

      I think you’ll like him, Max.

      He didn’t make me uncomfortable, except in the Going to Meet the Man piece. This policeman’s head is not a nice place to be. Otherwise, he made me touch with the tip of my fingers how it feels to be victim of racism.

      I have a tiny experience of it as a woman, at least on the prejudice part: talk to a mechanics he’ll assume you’re stupid, men always find normal that you take notes and write minutes of a meeting as if being a woman meant you are programmed to be a secretary.

      Part of what Baldwin says covers this too: you’re black you’re suppose to be stupid or a musician or not totally an adult.
      It’s all about condescension. In French, saying “tu” to an adult you don’t know can be very condescending because that’s how you address children. One way to be racist is to say “tu” to adult immigrants you’re not friends with.

      I was also shocked by the deeply rooted fear. (Harper Lee described it too) He makes it tangible and it reminded me of what people say about living in communist countries in the East of Europe after WWII and not being free of talking and acting the way they wanted. It’s a terrible comparison, I know but it came to my mind.

      Like

  4. N@ncy
    July 28, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    This review could not have happened at a better time! I’m planing to read more short stories and was unaware J. Baldwin’s collection. Great insights and I am searching/struggling to find a good template to use for a ShSt review. There is so much to tell…and so little space in a review. Thanks for this one!

    Like

    • July 28, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      Short stories are difficult to write about, I agree.
      I hope you’ll like Baldwin and I’ll very proud if my billet pushed another reader to read him.

      Like

  5. July 30, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    Great review, Emma. You know what really odd – Sonny’s Blues is possibly my favourite short story, yet I’ve never picked up a collection and haven’t even read the novels I own. Clearly one hell of an omission. Yeah, I would have to break my #20 under 200 TBR thingy. Maybe I will. A Balwin reading week might be a great idea.

    Like

    • July 30, 2015 at 9:52 pm

      Thanks Caroline. I’d be interested in reading your thoughts about him.
      Hmm your #20 under 200. Well, each short story is under 200, it’s not your fault if the collection is above 200. 🙂 (On dirait un raisonnement de jésuite)

      It would be great to do a Baldwin reading week. Around Martin Luther King Day would be a great date, don’t you think?

      Like

      • July 31, 2015 at 9:29 am

        I had to look it up. That would be in January, right? I just cheated on my book buying ban because of Jacqui. I found vouchers. 🙂 So maybe I can order a collection. Or trick “someone” into buying it.

        Like

        • July 31, 2015 at 6:52 pm

          Yes, that would be in January. You’ll have read your 20 for your TBR20 project at that time.
          Don’t tell me about cheating. I just tried to convince my husband that the first volume of the Markaris trilogy is exactly the read he needs for the holidays. 🙂 I’m afraid it didn’t work.

          Like

  1. December 29, 2015 at 11:28 pm
  2. November 5, 2016 at 3:08 pm
  3. May 25, 2017 at 11:55 am

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