THE FIRE IS UPON US by Nicholas Buccola


James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America
Email this review


A study of two acclaimed American thinkers on opposite sides of the political spectrum that underscores the enormous race and class divisions in 1960s America, many of which still exist today.

Buccola (Political Science/Linfield Coll.; The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, 2012, etc.) grounds this engaging comparison between James Baldwin, “second in international prominence only to Martin Luther King Jr. as the voice of the black freedom struggle,” and prominent conservative William F. Buckley in a debate between the two held at the Cambridge Union on Feb. 18, 1965. Taking up the agreed-upon topic of “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” Baldwin addressed the packed audience “in the position of a kind of Jeremiah” (as a child, he was steeped in biblical teachings from the pulpits of Harlem storefront churches). He poured forth the litany of demoralization that African Americans suffer under white supremacy. It was a powerful, moving speech, and Buckley countered it by scolding Baldwin for “flogging ‘our civilization’ ” and appealing to the audience on the importance of keeping “the rule of law” and “faith of our fathers.” By a 3-1 margin, the youthful audience favored Baldwin’s speech. Yet Buccola builds his well-rendered narrative by offering alternating looks at how the two American intellectuals and writers developed their arguments up to that point. Indeed, both were deeply imprinted by their different upbringings. Throughout his entire life, Baldwin wrote about the Harlem “ghetto” of economic distress and the “moral lives of those trapped within [it].” Buckley, who hailed from a wealthy Connecticut family and attended a prep school and Yale, where he was a member of Skull and Bones, stuck to the dogma, inherited from his father, of “devout Catholicism, antidemocratic individualism, hostility to collectivism in economics, and a strong devotion to hierarchy—including racial hierarchy—in the social sphere.”

An elucidating work that makes effective use of comparison and contrast.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-691-18154-7
Page count: 440pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2019