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The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America

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"A great read."—Whoopi Goldberg, The View

How the clash between the civil rights firebrand and the father of modern conservatism continues to illuminate America's racial divide

On February 18, 1965, an overflowing crowd packed the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to witness a historic televised debate between James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and William F. Buckley Jr., a fierce critic of the movement and America's most influential conservative intellectual. The topic was "the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro," and no one who has seen the debate can soon forget it. Nicholas Buccola's The Fire Is upon Us is the first book to tell the full story of the event, the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the decades-long clash between the men continues to illuminate America's racial divide today.

Born in New York City only fifteen months apart, the Harlem-raised Baldwin and the privileged Buckley could not have been more different, but they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement. By the time they met in Cambridge, Buckley was determined to sound the alarm about a man he considered an "eloquent menace." For his part, Baldwin viewed Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness of the American soul. The stage was set for an epic confrontation that pitted Baldwin's call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley's unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy.

A remarkable story of race and the American dream, The Fire Is upon Us reveals the deep roots and lasting legacy of a conflict that continues to haunt our politics.

ISBN-13: 9780691181547

Media Type: Hardcover(New Edition)

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Publication Date: 10-01-2019

Pages: 496

Product Dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

Nicholas Buccola is the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass and the editor of The Essential Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and many other publications. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and lives in Portland.

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From the Publisher

"With flair and grace, Nicholas Buccola provides the unforgettable backstory to a momentous debate—a clash of antiracist and racist ideas—over the very meaning of the American dream. It is a debate that still resonates today. A vital read."—Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist

"Drawing deep from archives while reminding us of that classic, grainy video of Baldwin and Buckley squaring off in England, Buccola brilliantly illuminates the American dilemma of race in the context of the early sixties, as well as now. As historian and political analyst, he deftly captures these two iconic wordsmiths at the peak of their divergent powers. How forcefully the past is past, but also so present in the hands of a superb scholar."—David W. Blight, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

"Two important voices. Two different visions of America. The Fire Is upon Us details the extraordinary gulf between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., which set the stage for their fateful encounter in Cambridge in 1965 and brilliantly describes our current malaise. With care and balance, Buccola examines these two historic figures and what followed from their views on race and the American dream. This is a must-read—especially as we are forced to choose between competing visions of who we take ourselves to be as Americans."—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul

"To answer the question 'How did we get to where we are today?' this stimulating book takes us back to a pivotal moment when the civil rights movement was struggling to change America and the conservative movement was attempting, in the words of William F. Buckley Jr., to stand 'athwart history, yelling Stop!' Nicholas Buccola's central thesis is controversial and provocative—in every sense of the word."—Carl T. Bogus, author of Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism

"An insightful, thoroughly researched, and well-written analysis of a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in America."—David Leeming, author of James Baldwin: A Biography

"This rich and provocative book follows Baldwin and Buckley from their earliest days to their confrontation on the debate stage and on TV, showing how they talked past one another. The Fire Is upon Us is excellent history but it's also brimming with relevance for contemporary racial politics."—Patrick Allitt, author of The Conservatives

"Written with marvelous style, The Fire Is upon Us is captivating, provocative, and exciting. Through its deep and thoughtful portraits of Baldwin and Buckley and its readings of American culture, politics, and history, the book casts light on the national past, present, and (one presumes) future."—Susan McWilliams Barndt, editor of A Political Companion to James Baldwin

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 The Ghetto and the Mansion, 1924-46 8

Chapter 2 Disturbing the Peace, 1946-54 27

Chapter 3 Joining the Battle, 1955-61 62

Chapter 4 Taking Responsibility, 1961-62 127

Chapter 5 In the Eye of the Storm, 1963-64 179

Chapter 6 "What Concerns Me Most": Baldwin at Cambridge 225

Chapter 7 "The Faith of Our Fathers": Buckley at Cambridge 267

Chapter 8 Lighting the Fuse 301

Epilogue. The Fire Is upon Us 357

Acknowledgments 369

Appendix. Transcript of the Baldwin versus Buckley Debate at the Cambridge Union 373

Notes 401

Bibliography 459

Index 477