DECEMBER 21, 2019
NICHOLAS BUCCOLA’S The Fire Is upon Us narrates a debate at the University of Cambridge in February 1965 between William F. Buckley Jr., the doyen of Cold War American conservatism, and James Baldwin, the most important African-American public intellectual of the 1960s. The story is a powerful one about the melodrama of race in the United States, past and present. The topic of the debate was red meat to both men: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin won the debate hands down, but the event itself is mere scaffolding for the more ambitious and interesting book Buccola achieves: a genealogy of how white supremacy — and attempts to slay it — have stayed at the center of American politics for more than half a century, up to and including our Trumpian present.
For Buccola, the Baldwin-Buckley debate was an inevitable clash between two men who embodied the double-helix shape of American history. Buckley was the scion of a Texas oil and real estate tycoon who supported the “America First Committee,” which conjoined antisemitic and pro-fascist messaging in order to oppose United States participation in World War II (though he withdrew his support once the US entered the war). Baldwin was Harlem-born to a migrant mother and factory-worker father, and in his youth identified briefly as a Trotskyite and member of the Young People’s Socialist League. Buckley went to Yale, where he supported the McCarthy hearings, just as Baldwin was leaving the United States for Paris to become a writer and to flee the scourge of American racism and chronic poverty. As he later put it to poet Nikki Giovanni, “I split. I had to split, otherwise I would be dead.”
The public outbreak of the Civil Rights movement in 1955 began to draw Baldwin and Buckley together as political and ideological foes. Buckley immediately aligned himself with the reactionary white majority in the South after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956. He advocated for “states’ rights” in his conservative journal National Review, even cozying up to all-white Citizens’ Councils throughout the South, which were responsible for some of the worst direct racial violence against civil rights protesters. Baldwin, meanwhile, returned from exile in 1957 specifically to throw his political weight and literary talent behind the Civil Rights movement. He wrote brilliant, searing essays on Black courage in the face of white supremacy for Harper’s and Partisan Review, all the while fearing for his own life as a Black, gay journalist in the heart of Dixie.
Baldwin’s reportage made him a national celebrity and a target for Buckley. In 1960, Buckley quoted an excerpt from Baldwin’s novel Another Country and described him as a “tormented Negro writer […] who celebrates his bitterness against the white community mostly in journals of the far political Left.” He also publicly dubbed Baldwin the “Number-1 America-hater.” These attacks crystallized key themes of Buckley’s Cold Warrior white supremacy, his defense of God and country, and his dismissal of Black dissidence as pathological.
But Baldwin was the wrong cat to poke. As his literary and political star rose with the publication of his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a manifesto in support of Black self-determination, so too did his ire against political orthodoxy and the go-slow apparatus of the American establishment in response to Civil Rights protests. Buccola narrates the drama of Baldwin’s quickly organized meeting — along with playwright Lorraine Hansberry and others — with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in response to the murder of four Black girls in the 16th Street Church bombing by Klansmen in September 1963. Baldwin left the meeting convinced that the federal government didn’t understand what Martin Luther King Jr. later called the “fierce urgency of now.” In 1964, Baldwin said he would leave the country for good if radical conservative Barry Goldwater was elected president. Buckley, meanwhile, threw lock, stock, and barrel support behind Goldwater, who famously lost one of the most lopsided elections in American history to Lyndon Johnson.
By 1965, the political stage was set for a public clash between the two men Buccola argues had become the respective faces of the American Black/white imaginary. All that was needed was an actual stage. Buccola’s blow-by-blow account of the debate at Cambridge Student Union is high theater and analytically sharp. Baldwin won the debate, Buccola argues, by personalizing the “Resolved”: that the American Dream is at the expense of the Negro. Implicating his Great White Father of a foe, Baldwin intoned, “The southern oligarchy […] was created by my labor and my sweat, the violation of my women, and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Baldwin also drew vivid pictures, for a mostly British audience, of the lived experience of US racial inequality. Pointing out that Robert Kennedy had said that the United States might have a Black president in 40 years, Baldwin retorted, “From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barbershop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday, and now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been [here] four hundred years.”
Baldwin sat down to thunderous applause. Buckley rose and, perhaps desperate, argued that Baldwin’s criticism of America had been given a free pass because he was Black. He floundered around for a while — 29 minutes as recorded by the Office Cambridge Union paperwork — then sat down. The vote was 544 for Baldwin, 164 for Buckley.
Baldwin and Buckley reunited later on television for a depleted version of their original debate. Buckley ran for mayor of New York, losing badly. Baldwin’s career proceeded unevenly after the debate, though his political commitments deepened: he marched for voting rights in Selma, supported the Black Panther Party, denounced the war in Vietnam, and wrote brilliant fiction and nonfiction works, like the 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, tracking the effects of mass incarceration, police violence, and the everyday racial profiling of African Americans. For the latter, especially, he has recently been recovered as a patron saint of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite Baldwin’s brilliant victory at Cambridge, Buccola is appropriately sanguine about the long arc of history tracing down to us from their intersecting lives. He astutely observes that Buckley’s life and career foreshadowed victories of both the Republican Party’s strategic Southern chauvinism, and the mainstreaming of racism in American political discourse. “For the American Right,” writes Buccola, “the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy. This was true in Buckley’s time, and it is true in our own.”
Buccola is less precise and prescient, in my view, on the meaning of Baldwin’s participation at Cambridge, and his legacy. Buccola describes as “radical moralism” Baldwin’s opposition to Buckley’s conservative racism, a phrase that seems better suited to the latter. Baldwin borrowed from a plethora of political traditions — abolitionism, socialism, anti-imperialism, Palestinian liberation struggle, and Black Power — to press his political case. His very manifest queerness — he was under FBI surveillance as a “pervert” by the time of his debate with Buckley — was also a burr in Buckley’s deeply homophobic defense of God and country: Buckley later said Baldwin won the debate because Baldwin was “a black; he hated America; [and] he was a religious skeptic and a homosexual.” Buccola might have paid more attention to how Baldwin’s sexual presence and persona was also a threat to Buckley’s arch defense and imagination of an “American Dream.”
Yet perhaps the greatest service Buccola’s book provides is reminding readers of the persisting, savage inequalities that have produced our own America First moment. William Buckley’s God-fearing rage against the “Number-1 America-hater” would sit nicely inside a Trump tweet. In unmasking the patrician Buckley, Buccola reveals the vulgar underbelly of America’s ruling elites, and the true nature of their continuing confidence in their own manifest destiny. The time is right not only to reread James Baldwin’s unprecedented response to this tradition, but to understand how and why he wanted it dismantled.
Bill V. Mullen is professor of American Studies and Affiliated Faculty with the Global Studies Program at Purdue University. He is also the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (Pluto Press, 2019).