On February 18, 1965 James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. engaged in an iconic debate at Cambridge University over this topic: “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” The debate was televised and it became one of the most intellectually explosive moments of the Civil Rights Era. In his book The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America, Nicholas Buccola tells the full story of this debate, these two prominent thinkers, and the ways in which we can learn from them in this current moment in history.
Nicholas Buccola is a writer, lecturer, and teacher who specializes in American political thought and theory. He is also the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty and the editor of The Essential Douglass: Writings and Speeches and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy.
Ahead of our February 13 event with him, we spoke with Buccola about the book, the lives and legacies of Baldwin and Buckley and how this debate continues to illuminate the country’s racial divide. Read on to learn more, then RSVP to our February 13 program with Nicholas Buccola and legendary photographer Steve Schapiro, who captured the changing socio-cultural landscape of America during the Sixties and covered prominent events and figures like Martin Luther King Jr., the March on Washington, Robert Kennedy’s on the presidential campaign trail, and even Baldwin himself. Learn more and RSVP here: Nicholas Buccola with Steve Schapiro, February 13, 6:30 pm.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: First, can you give us some brief context as to this moment in history and its significance?
NICHOLAS BUCCOLA: Well, the debate between Baldwin and Buckley occurred on February 18, 1965. So just to put that into context, that was nearly the high tide of the Civil Rights Movement. The same night that they’re meeting at Cambridge, we’re in the midst of the Selma campaign, so that was the latest front in the struggle for civil rights. At that point the struggle was really over voting rights. And Baldwin and Buckley, when they meet at Cambridge, they are each in some ways kind of embodiments of their respective movements. Baldwin is somebody who is, I think aptly described by Malcolm X as the “Poet of the Civil Rights Revolution,” meaning that he was sort of the leading literary figure associated with the Civil Rights Movement. And Buckley was somebody who at that point was the most famous American conservative polemicist. He used his newspaper column, his magazine, appearances on television, appearances on the lecture and debate circuit to advance the conservative cause. And really he was sort of the founding father of what we now call the conservative movement in the 50s and 60s.
So in this moment in 1965 when they meet, the country’s racial tensions are about as intense as they had been and there’s this opportunity for these two figures who represent these different movements to clash on this international stage. So that’s the kind of hook of the book. That this moment is such a powerful moment in American history, really in world history, and the book is really about the two of them. They were born about a year apart from each other, so the debate itself is kind of a climactic event in the book. But it’s really a story of two leading American public intellectuals thinking through this history and helping shape this history set against the backdrop of the rise of the civil rights and conservative movements.
AWM: And the way the book is formatted, is that you kind of tell the story of each of these man’s lives leading up to this moment to provide context as to how they developed their worldviews, right? What made you decide to format it this way?
BUCCOLA: Well my background is as a political theorist, so I teach a lot of books about political theory and political philosophy. And this is definitely not your typical political theory book. But I think part of why my background as a political theorist is relevant, is I really like this definition of philosophy as “thinking in slow motion.” So what I try to do in the book is really think in slow motion through these two really important figures. They’re both so prolific in both their published writings and as letter writers and visiting the archives, as a writer, I was able to kind of get a glimpse into their minds as they’re living through this extraordinarily important and dramatic period in American history.
“I really found [Baldwin] to be an extraordinarily powerful lens through which to view the world.”
My original hook as a researcher was this debate itself, it really fascinated me. But I began reflecting on what does it mean to really tell the story of this debate, and to tell the story of the debate is really to tell the long backstory. I know one reviewer said you have to wait 250 pages to get to the debate itself, but in some ways that’s what I thought was necessary to really tell this story correctly. I mean, Baldwin and Buckley are extraordinarily important figures in their respected movements. I don’t make any claims that they are the only ones or the most important figures we should think about. But I found that taking these two particular figures and thinking through how they dealt with the world as it presented itself to them was a powerful vehicle for me as a writer and I’m hoping that readers find it powerful as well. You can just see them sort of circling each other over the decades leading up, and then boom you get to Cambridge and they’re ready to square off.
AWM: You mentioned being in the archives and reading their work…could you explain your research and writing process?
BUCCOLA: I wish I could say it was this beautifully planned thing and I just sort of hatched this master plan, but of course it was much more muddling through. So the process for me was, I worked on an essay about the debate several years ago and as I worked on the essay — which was much more of a traditional political theory sort of essay about Baldwin’s philosophy of freedom — and as I worked on the essay I kept thinking to myself, there’s a book in here. My first step was, I was really interested in the story of how they got there that night. How did this even happen in the first place? I just kind of wanted to solve that mystery. The debate had been written about and it’s of course mentioned in both their biographies, but I wasn’t really able to find any extensive research into the backstory of the debates. So I wanted to figure that out. So that was my first step. That was really different, took me on very different terrain. As somebody who’s done most of my work, prior to this book, on the 19th century, in this case I had actual living human beings I could interview. The students who hosted the debate in ‘65, fifty years on many of those folks are still with us and so I was able to interview a number of the Cambridge students. And that helped me kind of get a sense — at least to the extent that their memories are accurate — a sense of the backstory of the debate. I was able to find the student who kind of planned the whole thing.
AWM: Oh wow that’s neat.
BUCCOLA: Yeah. So that was the first step. And I got some archival material from Cambridge that helped fill out some of those details. And early in the process when I knew I was going to write this book, a friend told me about two books that came out a few years ago about Malcolm X visiting Oxford in 1964. So I checked out those books and they’re mostly focused on that trip itself, on Malcolm going to Oxford and explaining what that was like. So I kind of had a Baldwin-at-Cambridge thought at first, but as I dug into the research it pretty quickly became clear this is a much bigger story to tell about these two guys and weaving their lives against the backdrop of the rise of these movements.
“The broader story I’m telling in the book is one that is so relevant in terms of understanding how racial politics have evolved over time, but at the same time how they’ve stayed the same.”
So once I kind of had the structure in mind, I had so much material to work with that then it was just the matter of managing the material. One of my friends said he sort of imagined me like Carrie in Homeland, with the wall in my house with all these different strings going from one thing to another. [Laughs]. And while I was writing the book in January 2017 Baldwin’s papers became available to scholars for the first time. His papers had been in his sister’s house for 30 years and then the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem acquired them and opened them in January 2017, which was great for me. I had written a bunch by that point so I had to go back and fix a lot of stuff. But Baldwin, although his papers are not nearly as vast as Buckley’s papers, he actually kept a lot more relevant stuff about the debate than Buckley did, for whatever reason. So that helped me tremendously in terms of filling out, trying to compare what witnesses told me with like the historical records. So for me it was a lot of back and forth of primary sources and secondary sources and archival work and just trying to piece the whole thing together.
“As I read Baldwin he helped me kind of make sense of our historical moment, both my reflections on history and the particular historical moment I found myself in in 2013.”
And I got in the habit, I don’t know when I started doing this, but a few years ago I hit a lull or just wasn’t quite feeling my writing mojo so I started writing by hand instead of on the computer. I got tired of staring at the lights of the computer. And it turns out, of course, neurologically different things are happening when you write by hand as opposed to typing. So I’ve gotten in the habit of writing on artist sketchpads, no lines. And the sketchpads were useful also for timelines, I would use big ones because I had so much. I sort of had a Buckley side, a Baldwin side and then the middle was major events, like political events or major civil rights events. Then I’d go through what I scribbled out on the tablets and type that out. And obviously I’d revise and revise and revise and revise.
AWM: Yeah I can totally picture you with all the post-it notes and bulletin boards with strings connecting the dots.
BUCCOLA: Yeah it was one those things where, as I worked on it, there were so many needles in these large haystacks, so as I could connect one thing to another…those are just great moments for a writer. [Laughs].
AWM: I can only imagine! You mentioned earlier that when this debate happened racial tensions were high, and unfortunately we find ourselves in a similar moment now…so what, if anything, do you think we can we learn from this debate and its aftermath today?
BUCCOLA: Yeah, as I started working on Baldwin back in probably 2013, there were ways in which the reaction to the rise of President Obama — ok so in American racial politics these issues have been there, right? They’ve been there since 1619, right? But in some cases for a lot of people they’re on a kind of low frequency. And of course for a lot of people they’re always on a high frequency in terms of the impact our racial nightmare, as Baldwin would call it, has on their lives. In terms of thinking through the relevance for the political culture generally, certainly as I began working on Baldwin, I definitely found myself thinking that I had never really encountered anyone like him in terms of really diagnosing, both through his fiction and nonfiction, this sort of human moral psychology. And doing it in this really interesting way that combines his own experiences with his reflections on history and on religion and on morality. And I really found him to be an extraordinarily powerful lens through which to view the world. I think that as I read Baldwin he helped me kind of make sense of our historical moment, both my reflections on history and the particular historical moment I found myself in in 2013
“[Baldwin] doesn’t let anybody off the hook, he’s always interrogating himself and interrogating others.”
Then in 2015 was when I really got serious about the book and so I started writing in January 2016. So think about that: starting in January 2016 and handing in the final manuscript in May of 2019, right, so think about the history we’ve experienced most recently? [Laughs]. So the urgency I felt about the story ramped up considerably over time. I don’t know if it comes through a little bit in terms of my writing, but by the time I’m writing the epilogue, we’ve certainly had the election of 2016 so I was especially fired up. [Laughs]. So yeah there’s ways in which the broader story I’m telling in the book is one that is so relevant in terms of understanding how racial politics have evolved over time, but at the same time how they’ve stayed the same, right? Like, looking at Buckley in slow motion really provides us with an example of how power adapts to new circumstances. And Baldwin is somebody who, in his own time and what his legacy means — there’s always this question of, like, what is Baldwin telling us to do? He’s got this incredible ability to explain why he thinks things are happening, but he’s kind of elusive on the political question. So I think that’s part of the puzzle of working on Baldwin. And I think that comes through in the book, is that I try to make sense of his understanding of the times through which he’s living and then try to draw out the broader lessons about his legacy. But I think he’s the kind of thinker that I won’t grow tired of reading and thinking about him because he is kind of elusive and I think that’s one of the things that is so powerful about his work.
AWM: Yeah that’s a great point about Baldwin, he gets us to think but doesn’t necessarily give us the answers.
“I definitely would just encourage writers to allow their material to guide them and not feel bound by the structures they’ve been taught.”
BUCCOLA: Right. One of the Baldwin quotes I’ve been using a lot as I’ve gone around talking about the book is, and I’ll get it roughly right, but he says, “Drive to the heart of every answer to expose the question that it hides.” Which I think really captures his way of thinking. I mean, he doesn’t let anybody off the hook, he’s always interrogating himself and interrogating others. And he says from the earliest — this is one of the things I found in the archives that I thought was really cool — but he gets this questionnaire from the publishers when one of his first novels is coming out and one of the questions that they ask was, “What sorts of people annoy you most?” And his response was, “People who are not disturbed by uncertainty,” or something like that. And so he always had this kind of view. He was very skeptical of anybody who’s too dogmatic about anything, while at the same time having this really strong moral core. He knew what he thought was right but he also recognized in terms of translating morality into the world, that politics requires a kind of dynamism that dogmatism doesn’t allow for.
AWM: As people read your book, what do you hope they take away from it?
BUCCOLA: I think by putting Baldwin and Buckley together there’s a lot of things we can learn about ourselves from both of their stories. One of the things I hope people recognize or see as they read the book and work through each man’s thoughts, are things that help them understand why they believe some of the things they believe. And possibly some of the story might cause folks to rethink some of the things that they believe. I know that for me I feel like I learned a lot as I worked on the book and I hope that experience carries over to readers. But this is a really important chapter in the story of race in American politics and telling it in this way I hope will help people think about it in a new light. You know, there’s plenty of great work, historical and political, about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the history of the conservative movement, but putting these two things together at that moment in history when they’re both on the rise and in so many ways clashing with each other can really be revealing in terms of understanding not only our history, but also understanding where we are today. So I hope the book will provide people with opportunities to learn more about themselves, to rethink how they exist in the world. And I think if it can help folks make sense of what justice requires of them I’ll be very happy. And I’ll also be very happy if it moves people to read more James Baldwin.
AWM: That kind of leads me into the next question, which I feel like I might already know the answer but I’ll ask it anyway…if you could meet one American writer of the past who would it be and why?
BUCCOLA: [Laughs]. Oh man, yeah well it would be hard not to choose Baldwin, wouldn’t it? But yeah right now in my thinking I definitely would have to choose Baldwin. Although if I could have a group meeting, I’ve spent a lot of my time working on Frederick Douglass so it would be interesting to sit down with Baldwin and Douglass. In part because in some ways they have very similar goals but they’re very different people so I think it would be fascinating to talk to both of them about a lot of these big questions.
AWM: Yeah I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that one.
BUCCOLA: And the other fun would be John Kennedy Toole, who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces which is one of my favorite novels. Anybody who could produce that novel must have been an interesting person to talk to.
AWM: That’s a great point. Are you reading anything now?
BUCCOLA: Well, Ibram X. Kendi has a relatively new book called How to Be An Antiracist. I really admired his book before this one, Stamped from the Beginning, which is a really powerful history of racist ideas. One thing that Kendi has helped me make sense of as I was working on this book was Buckley. Part of what Buckley really set out to do, and this is an important part of his legacy, was to resist civil rights in a nonracist way. And what Kendi’s helped me see, helped me understand, is that there’s this complexity of racism and how racism takes so many different forms and how racism adapts, right? And so I definitely recommend people check out Ibram X. Kendi for sure.
AWM: Any advice for aspiring writers?
BUCCOLA: I really push people to try to let their material guide them. I think that a lot of moments in my life where I have really hit a wall as a writer have been when I’m trying so desperately to fit material into existing forms and existing categories and the way I think it’s supposed to be done based on what all my teachers told me in graduate school or whatever. And so I think that it was incredibly liberating for me to, as someone who has been trained as a political theorist and has written in that genre for a couple decades now, is to just actually have this material and let the material take me in a totally new direction as a writer. I had more fun writing this book than I ever had writing before and I can’t really imagine ever going back. And I don’t know exactly what my next project will look like but I now know that feeling of liberation is incredible. So I definitely would just encourage writers to allow their material to guide them and not feel bound by the structures they’ve been taught.
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