Malbreaux: A James Baldwin Debate at 50
A historical showdown over the American Dream carries lessons for today.
In a crowded hall at the Cambridge Union over 50 years ago, some 700 observers at the world’s premiere debating club sat poised, eager to bear witness to an oratory spectacle. The motion of the day: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” Arguing in the affirmative, legendary African-American author James Baldwin stood at a podium in a dishearteningly white space. On the other side was William F. Buckley, conservative intellectual, tasked with defending the contrarian view of equal opportunity in America.
I have watched this debate over and over again on YouTube, entranced by the persuasiveness of Baldwin’s speech. A true master of rhetoric, Baldwin could easily shift from the philosophical to the personable. The answer to the house’s motion, he posed, “has to depend on … where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is, what your system of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them.”
Moving away from the epistemological, Baldwin narrows his focus to the individual, evoking feelings palpable to those of any color. In reconciling what 400 years of forced labor does to the human spirit, he remarked despondently, “I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.”
That is what made Baldwin so masterful. He knew his audience. He knew they could not understand the master’s whip or the cashier’s stare, the refusal of service here, the denial of entry there. But surely they knew what hopelessness felt like. Emotions transcend the boundary of race, and it has no color. What Baldwin led his audience to do was imagine the most extreme feelings of hopelessness they could imagine and multiply it by a million times. That feeling is what it felt like for an African-American to walk on American soil, “full of the corpses of my ancestors.” The soil was tilled by those ancestors. But the fruit born of that soil belonged to someone else. For white people, that fruit was the American Dream. For black people, it was four centuries of torture, lynching, rape, murder. Their work’s fruits meant nothing. It was all for nothing.
Buckley would have to respond tactfully to Baldwin’s rousing speech. While certainly a gifted speaker, his speech and his tone lacked one important quality: empathy. Perhaps his predetermined stance in the debate constrained his rebuttal speech. However, Buckley, a learned student of American history, did not possess a modicum of care for the black peoples. Instead, he acerbically dismissed the evils of slavery as a relic of the past. Opportunity in 1965 was ripe for the taking. To Buckley, economic disparity was not a failure of governance but a “failure of the Negro community itself to make certain exertions which were made by other minority groups during the American experience.”
In contrast to Baldwin, Buckley focused most of his speech on delineating “us” from “them,” dividing the people of the world into groups that are inferior and superior. Unfortunately for Buckley, this message was rather ineffective. Baldwin won the debate, 544-164.
The talking points made in this debate over 50 years ago remain in a very similar form today. It is hard to imagine a time where the struggle was not so real.
I am left questioning how effective discussions about racial identity are in aiding social progress. Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor, seems to think that categorizing ourselves into groups based on race, amongst other things, is bad for progress. Lilla wrote in The New York Times that every moment of social progress in American history is only possible via strong civic virtue — that is, when every person can look at each other and put aside physical differences and unite under a common flag, a shared destiny. He admonished the current Democratic establishment for playing “identity politics,” which he contends is a key reason why Democrats lost the White House last year.
I would love to believe in this perfect theory of democracy. Doesn’t it sound wonderful — that peoples of any creed, culture or religion can live in harmony by virtue of knowing they all pledge allegiance to the same flag? Sadly, that utopia has never existed, not in America, not anywhere. There has never been a time that the line between politics and identity — especially race — was clearly demarcated. Former President Harry Truman’s election strategy hinged on appealing to a wide range of ethnic and religious citizens who, otherwise, had no common interest with each other. Former President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” banked on creating a coalition of working-class and suburban whites, still reeling from the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Posed with the original question Baldwin and Buckley argued, I too agree that achieving the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro, along with a host of other marginalized peoples. That dream is a mere hallucination to far too many. Blacks and Hispanics remain largely underrepresented at top colleges. Their odds of every reaching the upper middle class remain unforgivingly low compared to their white counterparts.
Baldwin, in concluding his speech at Cambridge, remarked: “I am one of the people who built the country — until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.” So is the case for extending the American Dream to all, because if that does not happen, it will be “a very grave moment for the West.”