Author of the novel Giovanni’s Room and the nonfiction collection “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin was also a scathing social critic, a witty yet formidable media personality, and a literary ambassador for civil rights. And, as an outspoken gay man, he decried discrimination against gays and lesbians. In 1965, he accepted an invitation by Cambridge University to debate the “father of American conservatism” William F. Buckley on the subject, “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.” In the video above, Baldwin (introduced as the "star of the evening") delivers his stirring opening remarks, setting the tone he maintains throughout and pulling his nearly all-white audience to the edge of their seats.
Buckley, founding editor of the conservative journal National Review, had come out four years earlier against desegregation and Civil Rights legislation and was in the midst of his ultimately failed 1965 New York City mayoral campaign. He was always willing to engage with his ideological adversaries (see him debate Noam Chomsky in 1969 on his long-running television program, Firing Line), but remained a staunch opponent of liberalism. In this clip from the debate, Buckley responds to many of Baldwin's assertions:
Baldwin had just finished his novel Another Country when this debate took place. He was 41, Buckley 40. While both are well-known for the rhetorical savvy on display here, in this case at least, Baldwin proved the more persuasive voice. After the debate, the Cambridge Union Society took a vote and decided the issue in his favor, 540-160.
You can (and should) view the full debate, here.
Josh Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.