Friday, February 8, 2013
February 8, 2013: Remembering Baldwin and Buckley
[Last year, to honor Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—, I remembered amazing African American writers: Lucille Clifton, Harlem Renaissance authors, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and David Walker. This year, I’ll focus on complex and compelling historical conversations. Please share your suggestions for figures, histories, and other African American and American stories and memories for the weekend post!]
On the civil but definitely combative debate that helped signal two distinct but interconnected cultural and social shifts.
On October 26, 1965, novelist, essayist, and cultural critic James Baldwin met journalist, essayist, and cultural critic William F. Buckley, Jr. in a televised debate at Cambridge University’s Cambridge Union Society. The debate’s topic was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro,” and the liberal African Amercian Baldwin and conservative white Buckley took the respective positions on that theme that you would expect. As voted on by the (almost entirely white) Cambridge audience, the contest wasn’t close—they scored the debate 540 to 160 for Baldwin. And I would argue that anyone who watches the debate in its entirety would have to come to the same conclusion—Baldwin, who spoke first, simply owned the occasion with his combination of eloquence, passion, personal appeals, and logical arguments; Buckley, while as erudite and witty as ever, had few if any rejoinders of substance.
The debate is well worth watching for its own specific ideas and exchanges, as well as an introduction to both of these influential and talented American voices and figures. But it also illustrates a couple of complex and significant American shifts taking place in this 1960s moment, both of which have continued into the early 21st century. For one thing, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and parallel developments, African American figures such as Baldwin were beginning to be granted the possibility that their voices could participate in conversations at every level and in every community within American (and world) society. Anyone familiar with David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B Du Bois, and so many other Americans is of course well aware that African Americans could have participated at that level—at any and all levels—throughout American history; but for the most part, those individuals and their contemporaries were met by a very circumscribed sphere of activity. The broadening of that sphere took many decades, many figures, many moments like Baldwin’s invitation to, and dominant performance at, the Cambridge debate—but the debate can nonetheless highlight that shift very clearly and powerfully.
The 1960s also saw another national shift, however, one in a very different direction from—and indeed in some key ways inspired by—the broadening of African American possibilities. The simplest way to describe that shift is with the political concept referred to as the Southern Strategy: that Southern white supremacists switched political parties and/or were wooed away from their prior party, changing in either case from old-school Southern Democrats to Nixonian Republicans (a shift that culminated in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, but that perhaps is still unfolding and hardening). Yet I would argue that this shift was generational as well as regional—that whereas the white supremacy of prior decades had been, in its defining qualities, an aging philosophy, one longing for the distant Southern past; this new racism was embodied by younger (Buckley was not yet 40 at the time of the debate, younger by two years than Baldwin) and more forward-looking perspectives, arguments not about a lost or ideal past but also the kind of future America that these Republican racists hope to achieve. Which, to my mind, made this new racism even more dangerous and destructive—for when Buckley argued, in a 1961 editorial endorsing segregation, that “the cultural superiority of White over Negro … is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists,” he did so to argue for policies and goals that had real and lasting impact on our politics and society.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
BenPS. So what do you think? Responses to these figures and this moment? Other Black History Month connections you’d share for that weekend post?