It’s as relevant today as ever. This debate took place in 1965 between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” It’s astounding to watch this footage from over 50 years ago and think about race relations in America today.
One of the first things that strikes you is the leader of the side hosting William F. Buckley— the side arguing against the idea that the American Dream is built at the expense of African Americans. Before the debate begins, the leader of the hosting side takes the time to voice his full, undying support for civil rights. In fact, his argument is that the inequality facing African Americans has held the American dream back. Now, when William F. Buckley takes the stage, his logic may be flawed and it may be myopic. But this preface is important. Seeing both sides of a debate on race upholding and celebrating civil rights— and longing for equality— from the start feels a far cry away from where we are in America today. Compared to what we see in Charlottesville and with rise of the far right, it’s like they’re speaking another language.
But the real star of the show is James Baldwin. Articulate, passionate, charismatic, and persuasive— he is a show-stopping force. The writer and social critic, author of Notes on a Native Son, sheds light on the life of an African American living in America that we all need to hear today. Tracing the life of an African American and the way that prejudice eats away at you over time, he is able to communicate his message in a way that so few of us can. And of course the American dream was built at the expense of African Americans. He talks about that, but he says so much more. His opponent, William Buckley, didn’t stand a chance, even in a room of hundreds of privileged, white Cambridge students. To be honest, I just can’t do Baldwin justice. You really need to take the time to watch it:
It was so important then. It’s so important now. James Baldwin’s words deserves your time.