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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible James Baldwin (1924-1987)

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].

The eldest of nine children, James Baldwin was born in Harlem. An excellent student who read and wrote from an early age, he developed his writing with the encouragement of his high school teacher, poet Countee Cullen. Influenced by his stepfather, a factory worker and Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin originally planned on becoming a minister himself; he composed and delivered his own sermons in a storefront church at the age of fourteen and developed a style that would influence much of his later work. After graduating from high school, he moved to Greenwich Village and began to write full time. His book reviews and essays in The New LeaderThe Nation, and Partisan Review, along with the aid of author Richard Wright, helped earn him a fellowship, but his career did not blossom until he moved to France in 1948, where he wrote essays critiquing America’s failed promises. Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957, chiefly to join in the struggle for African American civil rights. Not surprisingly, he emerged as one of the movement’s most vocal participants, composing powerful commentaries in a style that incorporated the rhythms of gospel and the themes of preaching. His first novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and The Amen Corner (1955), explore both his painful relationship with his stepfather and his search for his racial heritage. Notes of a Native Son (1955), The Fire Next Time (1963), and “Going to Meet the Man” (1965) helped establish him as a leading black voice of the 1950s and 1960s.

In most of his works, Baldwin intertwines issues of race and sexuality. Giovanni’s Room (1956), for instance, explores a homosexual relationship between a white American expatriate and a young Italian man. Similarly, Another Country (1962) ruminates about what it means to be black and homosexual in a white society. Baldwin explained his diverse thematic interests this way: “I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else.” Although Baldwin’s move to France was in response to discrimination and bigotry in the United States, he never considered himself an expatriate. Rather, he referred to himself as a “commuter” with active and vocal interest in racial issues in his homeland. He became one of the most prolific spokespersons for black America, and Notes of a Native Son remains to this day a key text of the civil rights movement.

Teaching Tips

  • Before they read “Going to Meet the Man,” have students research the post-Civil War lynchings that took place in the United States, even up until the mid-twentieth century. They may be surprised to find that nearly two thousand lynchings of African Americans by whites took place in the twentieth century. You may wish to use the story of Emmett Till and his 1955 lynching as a focus of the research. Till was a fourteen-year-old African American from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. After an incident where he apparently “whistled” at a white woman in a store, he was found shot and battered almost beyond recognition. An all-white jury acquitted the men accused of the crime. This miscarriage of justice led to demonstrations by African Americans throughout the South and helped to spark the civil rights movement.
  • Show students portions of the 1915 D. W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, which is still used today as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan and is still taught in film classes for its groundbreaking cinematography. Discuss its blatant racist message and have students research why this film was one of the biggest blockbusters of its time. Make sure to preview the film ahead of time (it is three hours long) to select applicable scenes and to prepare students for its content. Finally, ask them to make connections between the film and Baldwin’s story.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Baldwin’s story is full of sound, with juxtapositions of moaning, singing, and screaming, along with passages pointing out silence. Describe how sound is used in “Going to Meet the Man” to intensify the action and memories and to provide an understanding of Jesse’s mental state.
  2. Comprehension: Sexuality, violence, guilt, and hatred are intertwined in this story. What connections do you see among them in Jesse’s mind? Why does the story end in the way it does and what is ironic about that ending?
  3. Comprehension: What is ironic about Jesse’s relationship with his young friend, Otis? Do you think Jesse’s life could have been different if he had more liberal parents, even growing up in the South?
  4. Context: Was publishing “Going to Meet the Man” in the midst of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s an act of special significance? What aspects of the story help you construct your answer?
  5. Context: Do you believe that Baldwin excuses Jesse and his actions in any way because of the culture Jesse was brought up in? Why or why not?
  6. Exploration: More than thirty years after the first publication of “Going to Meet the Man,” American writers and film directors are often faulted for imagining the psychological life of someone of the other gender or from a different race or culture. How does Baldwin succeed or fail in his representation of Jesse, a white deputy sheriff in a small southern town?
  7. Exploration: Compare the racism in “Going to Meet the Man” with the racism encountered in a novel (or movie) like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. What are the differences and similarities?
  8. Exploration: In Gender Trouble (1990), feminist theorist Judith Butler argues that gender is not constant but rather is fluid and changes with a given context. In this sense, one “performs” one’s gender. Test Butler’s theory using Baldwin’s characters. Does Jesse’s gender depend on the circumstances in which he finds himself?

Selected Archive Items

[2256] Russell Lee, Negro Drinking at “Colored” Water Cooler in Streetcar Terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80126].
Jim Crow laws in the South insulated whites and oppressed and demoralized African Americans. Many black writers, from W. E. B. Du Bois to James Baldwin, examined the negative economic, physical, and psychological effects of segregation in their work and challenged other black and white Americans to do the same.

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].
African American man in a segregated waiting room at bus station. Jim Crow laws severely divided the experiences of whites and African Americans in the South.

[4012] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of James Baldwin (1955),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42481].
Photographer Van Vechten was an important patron of Harlem Renaissance writers and artists. The Harlem Renaissance laid an important foundation for writers like Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. James Baldwin is remembered as a civil rights activist and author of plays, poetry, and novels, including Go Tell It on the Mountain.

[5085] Esther Bubley, A Rest Stop for Greyhound Bus Passengers on the Way from Louisville, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, with Separate Accommodations for Colored Passengers (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-62919].
“If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane,” wrote Justice Brown of the United States Supreme Court in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the legality of segregation in the United States. Not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, did the Court find the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional.

[5719] Cleveland Advocate, article: “Oppose Birth of a Nation” (1915),
courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.
Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, launched protests and a nationwide campaign to boycott D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which glorified the KKK and helped the organization revive after it had been virtually dead for several decades.

[8604] Ku Klux Klan, Constitution & Laws of the Knights of the KKK (1921),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
The KKK had nearly died out by the turn of the twentieth century, but was resurrected in 1915, due largely to the film Birth of a Nation. Lynching by the KKK and other white supremacists led Langston Hughes to write “Song for a Dark Girl” and set the stage for Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” sung by Billie Holiday.

[9071] Anonymous, Ku Klux Klan Parade, Washington, D.C., on Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. (1926),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-59666].
This photograph of a huge Ku Klux Klan march in Washington, D.C., attests to the mainstream acceptance of the group in the 1920s and 1930s. The KKK organized under the guise of a civic organization and enforced Jim Crow laws and white supremacy with intimidation and violence. The group regained popular support after the release of Birth of a Nation.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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