James Baldwin's short story, "Going to Meet the Man" may be the one story we need to read in these times. Masterfully, but agonizingly written, it delves into the sleepless psyche of the white sheriff who, in bed with his wife after a day of arresting black protesters, cannot make his body make love to her. He has no trouble with the African American women he arrests or detains. With them it is rough for them and satisfying for him. But here, at home, he cannot get an erection. And he cannot get the sound of the protesters singing out of his head.
And in his sleeplessness he remembers being brought to see a lynching when he was just a boy. Buoyed on his father's shoulders, he recalls watching the bound black man, naked, brutalized, head hanging as he was strung up upon a tree above a raging fire. His father's deputies raise and lower the man into the fire. They cut him. They torment him. And we are told that the boy on his father's shoulders wants to ask him "What did the man do? What did he do?" But he cannot ask him. Because as physcially close as they are, "his father was far away."
"Going to Meet the Man" is a singular story, a mind-blowing mix of searing sadism and bizarre empathy. Of course Baldwin must hate his main character. And yet he writes of him with a compassion that beggars understanding--but which forces the reader to see institutionalized cruelty and its perpetuation as causal. It does not so much indict as it does to invite--or compel--the reader to denouce, redress and rectify the dehumanization of racism.
It is a rough gem of a story. It is a prophetic charge wrapped in narrative. It is sermon and summons. It is time to read it. And to share it: