The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America

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Release Date: 
October 1, 2019
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Nicholas Buccola’s captivating new book, The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Debate over Race in America, not only masterfully re-creates the debate in dramatic detail, but provides critical context, illuminating the road that each man traveled to Cambridge, and the groundbreaking work that established Baldwin and Buckley as iconic figures on opposite sides of the battle over racial justice and white supremacy that divided the country then as today.”

On February 18, 1965, a 150-year-old debating society at Cambridge University in England brought together two prominent intellectuals from the antipodes of American race relations, National Review editor William F. Buckley and novelist and essayist James Baldwin, to debate the topic “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Presented before a packed house at the Cambridge Union and televised on the BBC, the debate delivered an eloquent enunciation of racist and antiracist ideology at the peak of the civil rights era, and delivered more than its share of striking moments.

One of the most extraordinary occurred a few minutes into Buckley’s talk, which attempted to dismantle Baldwin’s “copious literature of protest” with just enough precisely referenced detail to mask Buckley’s many blatant misrepresentations of Baldwin’s work. With his inimitable practiced insouciance, Buckley declared that in Baldwin’s bestselling The Fire Next Time (1963), the “flagellating” essayist “threatened America with the necessity for us to jettison our entire civilization.”

No one familiar with Buckley’s rhetorical style will be surprised that the cagey debater (whose address followed Baldwin’s) applied his most biting and self-revealing criticism not in this hyperbolic flourish but in the tossed-off aside that preceded it. In The Fire Next Time, Buckley asserted, Baldwin didn’t “speak with the British accents that he used exclusively tonight.”

Throughout this pointed digression, the BBC broadcast locked in on an extreme closeup of Baldwin that captured the writer’s absolute astonishment at Buckley’s unabashed bigotry and condescension. One can imagine Baldwin kicking himself for not anticipating that Buckley, author of the landmark segregationist essay “Why the South Must Prevail”—who had just asserted that Baldwin’s race was irrelevant to his work and the topic at hand—would call him out for not talking like a Negro.

Half a century later, one might well wonder how such an event ever came to pass, or how two men with so little use for each other—by all appearances, they never exchanged the sort of sporting pre-debate bonhomie that even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did in 2016—found themselves sharing the same stage.

Nicholas Buccola’s captivating new book, The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Debate over Race in America, not only masterfully re-creates the debate in dramatic detail, but provides critical context, illuminating the road that each man traveled to Cambridge, and the groundbreaking work that established Baldwin and Buckley as iconic figures on opposite sides of the battle over racial justice and white supremacy that divided the country then as today.

The Fire Is Upon Us emerges as a fascinating study in contrasts, not just in the vast chasm that separated Buckley’s and Baldwin’s racist and antiracist ideas, but in the motivations and temperaments of the men who espoused them.

Buckley fashioned the foundational texts of the modern conservative movement, beginning with God and Man at Yale (1951), his pointed indictment of a perceived culture of collectivist indoctrination corroding traditional religious and social values at America’s premier universities. Buccola portrays Buckley as a uniquely energized elitist, crafting a comprehensive, high-toned counteroffensive to the perceived liberal drift and moral relativism of the world around him.

Determined to “stand athwart history”—pen and printing press in hand—“yelling Stop!” Buckley regarded the integrationist “overreach” of the Warren Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the lowbrow bullying of segregationists like George Wallace and Bull Connor with equal patrician scorn. But he acknowledged white supremacy as a sort of self-evident conditional truism and championed the right of Southern whites as the dominant race to defend their position—by force if necessary—and mete out concessions to hitherto-undeserving Southern blacks only as black self-improvement might warrant them.

Though mildly repelled by the crudity and violence of the South’s most rabid segregationists, Buckley recognized their value to the Conservative movement. As Buccola succinctly explains, in doing so Buckley anticipated the cynical coalition-building strategies of conservative elites of the next half-century like David and Charles Koch and Harry Lynde Bradley by covertly courting the support of racist whites and astutely exploiting their racial resentment. 

Buckley emerges in Buccola’s telling as a man simultaneously irritated and amused by America’s roiling racial conflict. (Baldwin, by contrast, as his agent Robert Lantz once remarked, was “never cool and amused about the world’s problems; he was always aroused.”) Buckley regarded the most heated excesses on both sides as products of a lack of sophistication among an intellectually deficient American rabble that shouldn’t even be voting, let alone inserting themselves through political action into decisions best left to those more educated, cultured, and qualified.

Most The Fire Is Upon Us readers will likely approach the book as students of the Civil Rights movement rather than the Conservative movement, or as Baldwin aficionados curious about this peculiarly intriguing moment in his career. It’s an incident little discussed, for example, in David Leeming’s excellent Baldwin biography.

As such, these readers may find themselves fascinated with Buccola’s cogent and extensive analysis of Buckley’s life and work, of which they’ll likely know relatively little. They’ll also find informative Buckley’s early efforts to spread the conservative gospel through God and Man at Yale and National Review—a germination covered less extensively in Rick Perlstein’s indispensable Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consenus—and the persistence of the ideas these works propagated in the far more established modern right and alt-right.

Baldwin, Buccola writes, identified the “rejection of black humanity” as the issue at the heart of racial injustice in America. Never for a moment even remotely amused by the treatment of blacks at the hands of northern landlords and police, southern segregationists and sheriffs, or a Democratic president and attorney general who seemed less interested in what blacks wanted than why they weren’t more grateful for the administration’s lofty words about racial reconciliation, Baldwin found himself called to bear witness to the struggle and dig deeper into its causes and consequences than any American writer (of his own time or any other) in both his essays and his fiction.

In his fast-moving but richly analytical narrative, Buccola judiciously recounts the arc of Baldwin’s pre-1965 writing to contextualize the points he made in his address at the Cambridge debate. Baldwin took great pains to understand white perspectives, to recognize the humanity in a seemingly monstrous figure like Jim Clark, and even went so far as to write from a race-neutral point of view in some of his most penetrating essays (as well as the racist white sheriff’s perspective in the short story “Going to Meet the Man”).

Still, Buckley’s idea, expressed at Cambridge, that Baldwin’s own experience as a black man and the legacy of slavery and suffering that informed it, should somehow be cast aside to arrive at an objective assessment of his writing—as Buckley insists, to evaluate him as a white man—cuts to the core of the racial denial and delusion Baldwin discusses in so much of his work. Like Buckley, Baldwin recognized the importance of protecting individual rights; but for him, as Buccola explains, “the realization of this promise of freedom (as well as other social, political, and economic promises) was impossible without first achieving freedom from the delusions that allow us to deny the humanity of others.”

Being the descendant of slave women and the white men who raped them meant still bearing the weight of that history, and made his racial lineage integral to anything Baldwin wrote or said. As Baldwin explained at Cambridge, “I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing . . . I am not a ward of America. I am not an object of missionary charity. I am one of the people who built the country.”

What’s more, Buckley’s notion that segregation and white supremacy might somehow eradicate themselves through hands-off, objective meritocratic recognition and reward granted to subjugated Negroes by the white race in power seemed as delusional as his notion that he might do credit to his opponent by regarding him as a white man in black skin. As Baldwin wrote, “Even the most benevolent of superiors denies those they dominate their dignity.”

One of the overarching assertions Buckley made at Cambridge was that the cards were stacked against him upon his arrival. The Cambridge students who would pick a winner that night, he claimed, would be prejudiced in Baldwin’s favor because he was an (allegedly) anti-American, atheist, black homosexual; apparently, in the stridently pro-black, anti-American, pro-gay climate of 1965, a straight, patriotic, Christian white man couldn’t possibly compete.

Buckley essentially qualified his defeat (by the lopsided margin of 540-160) by predicting it. Buckley continued to spin his loss to Baldwin through much of his life, in a “decades-long project to vindicate his performance that night,” insisting that Baldwin had received a standing ovation before he even uttered a word, and that he had won by manipulating the students’ emotions rather than appealing to their rational judgment. Later on, Buckley expressed his fondest wish to see “the Baldwins . . . ghettoized in the corners of fanaticism where they belong.” 

Though Buckley was fortunate to see his conservative movement take hold in America with the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s (a grip it still maintains nearly 40 years later), he was perhaps even luckier not to live far enough into the YouTube era to see his own Cambridge Union mythmaking debunked in the full BBC broadcast easily accessed today.

For Baldwin’s part, the debate with Buckley at Cambridge apparently seemed little more than a mildly satisfying victory or a minor annoyance at having to meet such a loathsome figure face to face. It certainly took a backseat to the British paperback publication that week of his third novel, Another Country, which remains, perhaps, Baldwin’s most breathtaking work, and arguably the most poignant novel in the English language.

Any sense of triumph Baldwin might have derived from his decisive victory at Cambridge was quickly supplanted by the dejection, anger, and dread that attended the news of his good friend Malcolm X’s assassination, which reached Baldwin three nights later.

Baldwin did, however, have more to say about his one subsequent debate with Buckley, four months later on American television, in which most viewers concluded Buckley got the better of him.

Three years later, pressed by a journalist to comment on his encounters with Buckley, Baldwin bypassed the Cambridge debate and addressed the second conquest, laying the blame for his loss squarely on himself. He spoke with characteristic acuity on the ascendant conservative movement of his own time and with prophetic insight into the conservative revolution to come, including, one might argue, the actor-turned-governor-turned-president who gave that revolution its name:

“I was trying to do what Martin was doing. I still hoped people would listen. But Bill’s a bully, he can’t listen, he uses weapons I simply won’t use . . . He was saying Negroes deserve their fate; they stink. To my eternal dishonor, I cooled it, I drew back and I lost the debate. I should have beat him over the head with the coffee cup. He’s not a serious man. He’s the intellectual’s James Bond.”