“The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America” by Nicholas Buccola— A Clash of Opinion About Race

Buccola, Nicholas. “The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Clash of Opinion About Race

Amos Lassen

The clash of opinions about race in America between James Baldwin, civil rights firebrand and William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism still today illuminate America’s racial divide.

On February 18, 1965, a huge crowd filled the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to watch 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 to be discussed was “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” and this is a debate that has never been forgotten. Nicholas Buccola’s “The Fire Is upon Us” is the first book to tell the full story of the event and to share the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the clash between the men continues to show America’s racial divide today.

Both men were born in New York City, 15 months apart Baldwin, born and raged in Harlem and the privileged Buckley were total opposites, yet they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement. By the time they met in Cambridge, Buckley considered Baldwin to be an “eloquent menace.” Baldwin saw Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity  showed “the sickness of the American soul.” The debate was to be an epic confrontation that put Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s elitism and his implicit commitment to white supremacy. What we have here is the story of race and the American dream revealing the deep roots and lasting legacy of a conflict that continues to haunt us and our politics.

“Nicholas Buccola follows the men’s journeys with in great and he gives us tremendous insights into race and America. His study of two lauded American thinkers on opposite sides of the political spectrum shows the enormous race and class divisions in 1960s America, many of which still exist today. We get deep and thoughtful portraits of Baldwin and Buckley and of American culture, politics, and history.

This is the  backstory to that famous debate and a clash of antiracist and racist ideas―over the meaning of the American dream. Here are two important voices with two different visions of America.  Buccola reminds us of the American dilemma of race in the context of the early sixties, as well as today. We are taken back in time to better understand how we got to where we are today. The author’s thesis is indeed controversial and provocative

 

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