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Posted October 18, 2019
A BOOK REVIEW OF "THE FIRE IS UPON US"
By Arelya J. Mitchell*
The Mid-South Tribune
I am sure the University of Cambridge neither cared nor was aware that it was Black History Month when they hosted the Super Bowl of debates between intellectual heavyweights William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Baldwin.
February 18, 1965 was the date, and that year was one year after the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was passed into law, and one year after the heated racially-divided presidential run between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater—and ’65 itself was the precursor to what would become the second most famous march outside of the ’63 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This showdown of a march was Selma which would live on in infamy in movies, books, and bitter memories which still resonate today.
However, the great debate at Cambridge has mainly been lost in history in spite of the fact that it, too, held all the symbolism of those turbulent 60’s. Yeah, the great debate was literally in black and white respectively in the person of James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. and yes, it was the race aspect which made it so highly anticipated in spite of the ‘intellectual’ aspect of one-upmanship of wit and barbs. In other words, this was really about seeing a black guy and a white go after each other on a mat of gray matter. Nobody really likes to say it this way because of the PC culture, but this is exactly what it was. Yes, there they were: Buckley, the white guy and conservative extraordinaire, ready to do erudite battle with Baldwin, the black guy and liberal extraordinaire. The debate topic was “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.” So much for MLK’s “I Have A Dream”.
Well, one needn’t worry about this great debate remaining lost at this juncture in the 21st Century. Nicholas Buccola has dug it out of the cobwebs of time in his “The Fire Is Upon Us,” published by Princeton University Press. For the sake of history, I’m glad Buccola decided to examine this event. He is the first to do it as a book.
I received the galley of “The Fire Is Upon Us” in April 2019, and I must admit that even though I thought this would be a rather dry subject, I still would have found it worth my while because I just plain love debates. Buccola’s style and tone of delivering you this historic debate drew me in to a point where I did not mind his going back-and-forth as if in a debate match to bring out the points and counterpoints in the debate. Nothing’s dry about this book.
Buccola captures the atmosphere of racial tension (to hate or not to hate; to segregate or not to segregate-- you get my point). He pulls in and explores the strong personalities of both men—and yes, even the arrogance of both men. One gets the feeling that there was not an ounce of humility between the two of them. Both men have now passed into the annals of time, but not before they contributed and amassed a bulk of worth in politics, political theory, literature, and the socio-economic dialectics to make for many future debates on race in America which tritely have continued in 21st Century America.
But shall we continue with Buccola himself? What I appreciated about the author was his ability not only to put readers inside the debate hall, but also inside the heads—the mindsets—of Buckley and Baldwin. I appreciated how he pulls this off with a biographical back-and-forth to distinguish both men—one born with a silver spoon and one who was not; the education route of each; the families of each; the youth of each separated by ‘race in America’ forming their psychological and philosophical trek all the way up to the great debate, into the great debate, and after the great debate.
“On the evening of February 18, the Cambridge Union was abuzz with excitement. The debating hall of the Union, which was modeled after the British House of Commons, was packed with seven hundred people. Students and guests at the idyllic campus of the University of Cambridge filled every spot available on the benches and in the galleries, and still more sat in the aisles on the floor. As the world’s oldest and most prestigious debating society, the Cambridge Union had often been the site of public attention, but this evening had the promise of something extraordinary…The people in the debating hall of the Union sensed that they were about to witness an intellectual clash for the ages.” Buccola sets this scene in his prologue. He continues: “As the crowd poured in, the space became hotter, stuffier, and further in violation of the fire code.”
With such a description, I could only think as indicated by his title “The Fire Is Upon Us.”
Certain ‘big’ footnotes must be pointed out which are (1) that this is the first book to be written on this historic debate and (2) that political commentator George Wills is practically another major figure in the book. True, Wills was an admirer of Buckley when he came on board Buckley’s National Review, but I hardly think of Wills as being Buckley’s protégé as it would seem Buckley would have thought of him. Buckley seemed to have thought of Wills as an intellectual-in-the-making albeit an intellectual pushover. Why wouldn’t he have? Buckley’s arrogance would have drawn him into judging that a young man such as Wills or perhaps anyone else would not have the capacity to stand up to him. Wills did. Read it for yourself. It’s worth it.
Buccola does an excellent job in juxtaposing the National Review and Progressive magazines and their respective editors and writers with Baldwin as a great literary figure in the mix of this civil rights era.
To be blunt, Buccola lays out and examines the National Review’s editorial Civil Rights stance. He writes: “In the early years of the National Review, Buckley and his colleagues developed a case against the civil rights movement that consisted of four major categories of argument: constitutionalist, authoritarian, traditionalist, and racial elitist. Each of these categories was undergirded by an assumption of cultural (if not congenital) white supremacy.”
Ah, there’s that political hot button phrase again “white supremacy” which has punched itself all the way from the 1860’s Civil War era to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement to what is happening in a 21st Century America. (As a side note, I would like to see the other side of the coin examined one day in the form of liberal white supremacy. Yet, I must wait for another time to assert my own observation on the hypocrisy of liberalism and my own concept/precept of liberal racism).
This brings me to what I think is the defining chapter in “The Fire Is Upon Us” which is chapter seven, entitled “The Faith of Our Fathers: Buckley at Cambridge.” One can almost guess that it would be Baldwin who would receive the standing ovation, but by the same token, I am presupposing that the ovation stemmed not so much from Baldwin’s gift as a novelist, writer of profound political thought, speaker, and Civil Rights activist but rather because he was Black. In my opinion, it is the ‘liberal’ who cannot get beyond ‘Black’ and it is the ‘Black’ who keeps accommodating this sophisticated fickleness (but I digress into my own excursion but it is Buccola’s handling of the subject and Buccola’s own speculation which prompted me to do so. This is how well-written “Fire” is. This is the flip side of a self-righteous liberal bias which in my opinion has yet to be fully examined either then or now.). Ironically, it is George Wills who has a more realistic grasp of the event which is depicted when Buccola describes Buckley’s state of mind as: “The standing ovation for Baldwin must have felt like an eternity to Buckley. He remained seated, leaning back, with his legs crossed and a pen to his mouth. In part because the ovation was lasting so long…” If you have ever watched the old “Firing Line” series on PBS, you can capture this picture of Buckley even better.
What Wills’ realistic grasp is, as Buccola writes: “Intellectuals, Wills had contended, were actually showing Baldwin a great deal of disrespect by greeting him with such uncritical adulation. This was disrespectful because his arguments did not merit such treatment, and he was being paid such deference because he was black.” I concur. All I can add to this, observing from the history of my own life, is to put in brackets the word ‘White’ in front of ‘Intellectuals’ in the above paragraph. Thus, why I give kudos to Buccola for having the guts to even put in such a paragraph regarding Wills.
Sometimes, there is this proclivity to place a collegiate debate held at an upscale university such as Cambridge out of the realm of the general public or rather common folk, but on the contrary this debate between Buckley and Baldwin was produced – or rather birthed from— what was going on among the masses which was a civil rights movement which stemmed from the “Negro Question” which had been asked since slavery which led up to the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to now. However, to be politically correct, one would label it “The African American Question” or “the Black American Question.” Will it ever be answered? (Also, keep in mind that the “Negro Question” was being asked internationally as well because of the unrest going on in the African colonial nations held by Great Britain.).
There is so much depth to this book that I doubt that even Buccola himself realizes that he pulled off a controversial masterpiece—in black and white—like a pencil drawing which needs to filled in perhaps with another passage of time. Buccola’s interjecting his own observations, interpretations, and commentary in portraying two strong-willed activist-intellectuals is just as (perhaps more so) dynamistic and dramatic as the warriors themselves inside the Cambridge arena. This is what makes a good book great.
“The Fire Is Upon Us” (Princeton University Press) is now available in bookstores, online, and in other retail outlets.
*Ms. Mitchell is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of The Mid-South Tribune. This book review is also on the book lane on The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway at Black Information Highway.com.