The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the debate over race in America
Princeton University Press (Footprint), $79.99 hb, 482 pp
Rising to the lectern amid a tightly packed crowd in the Cambridge Union’s debating hall, James Baldwin began quietly and slowly to speak. ‘I find myself, not for the first time, in the position of a kind of Jeremiah.’ It was February 1965, and Baldwin was in the United Kingdom to promote his third novel, Another Country (1962). Baldwin’s British publicist had asked the Union if they would host the author. Peter Fullerton, the Union’s president, was quick to seize this opportunity, on one condition: that Baldwin participate in a debate.
Speaking for the motion that the ‘American dream is at the expense of the American Negro’, Baldwin offered his jeremiad not just on the state of American race relations but, as he saw it, the tortured state of the American soul. According to Baldwin, the United States needed saving from itself and only a complete moral reckoning would prevent the country from being engulfed in the hatred and violence so recently on display in Birmingham.