“A great read.”—Whoopi Goldberg, The View
How the clash between the civil rights firebrand and the father of modern conservatism continues to illuminate America’s racial divide
On February 18, 1965, an overflowing crowd packed the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to witness a historic televised debate between James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and William F. Buckley Jr., a fierce critic of the movement and America’s most influential conservative intellectual.
The topic was “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” and no one who has seen the debate can soon forget it.
Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is upon Us is the first book to tell the full story of the event, the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the decades-long clash between the men continues to illuminate America’s racial divide today.
Born in New York City only fifteen months apart, the Harlem-raised Baldwin and the privileged Buckley could not have been more different, but they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement.
By the time they met in Cambridge, Buckley was determined to sound the alarm about a man he considered an “eloquent menace.”
For his part, Baldwin viewed Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness of the American soul.
The stage was set for an epic confrontation that pitted Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy.
A remarkable story of race and the American dream, The Fire Is upon Us reveals the deep roots and lasting legacy of a conflict that continues to haunt our politics.
Awards and Recognition
- One of Whoopi Goldberg’s Favorite Things, ABC The View
- Chicago Tribune writer John Warner’s Book That Will Help You Better Understand the Messed-Up Nature of the World
- New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
- One of The Undefeated’s 25 Can’t Miss Books of 2019
- One of The Progressive’s Favorite Books of 2019
- One of LitHub’s 50 Favorite Books of the Year
- One of Inside Higher Ed’s Books to Give the Educator in Your Life for the Holidays
The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history
In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’
From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history.
Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population.
Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions.
In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.
While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right.
Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters.
After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it.
In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.
Website: The Cambridge Union
Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino