The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” James Baldwin declared on February 18, 1965, in a pivotal and riveting debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the University of Cambridge in England. Writer, thought leader and radical creative, Baldwin was echoing the motion of the debate. The premise being, that the American dream was at the expense of black Americans, with Baldwin for, Buckley against. Baldwin had a continual emphasis on the words is and I both made his point crystal clear. “I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing,” he said, his voice rising with the cadences of the pulpit. “For nothing.”
The Debate. Baldwin and Buckley.
For the debate, the packed auditorium was hushed. In one corner was Baldwin, short, slender, almost androgynous with his still-youthful face, voice carrying the faintly cosmopolitan inflections he’d had for years. He was the debate’s radical, an esteemed writer unafraid to volcanically condemn white supremacy and the antiblack racism of conservative and liberal Americans alike. In the other corner was Buckley, tall, light-skinned, hair tightly combed and jaw stiff, his words chiseled with his signature transatlantic accent. If Baldwin who wrote moving portraits of black America and about life as a gay expat in Europe, stood for America’s need to change. While William F. Buckley positioned himself as the reasonable moderate who resisted the social transformations that civil-rights, with desegregation at the very forefront. Some of the students in the audience knew him as nothing less than the father of modern American conservatism. Falling upon Buckley’s every word. Who wins this debate? You Decide.