Book Review: The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Debate over Race in America

What a fascinating and enlightening book! I had seen the Baldwin/Buckley debate at Cambridge on YouTube so I was at least familiar with that event. However, I was not familiar with the backstories regarding the two men and how they influenced the civil rights movement. Buccola’s book provides an excellent historical context around the debate. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was not familiar with Mr. Baldwin’s contributions regarding the civil rights movement. Baldwin was certainly a very persuasive and excellent spokesman for civil rights.

I was familiar with Mr. Buckley, particularly through his TV show Firing Line which I watched in my much younger years. Though I did not always agree (or understand) Mr. Buckley’s point of view, I was always impressed by his articulateness, vocabulary and presentation. However after reading this book, I am not so impressed by Mr. Buckley. I had no idea about his views regarding civil rights and blacks as human beings. I know it was a different time and many people shared Mr. Buckley’s opinion that the civil rights movement was proceeding too quickly. But I ascribed more intelligence, judgment and reasoning to Mr. Buckley that he deserved. This book opened my eyes to this part of history that I missed.

According to the author, Mr Baldwin’s opinion of William F. Buckley was much harsher…

“Buckley, Baldwin believed, knew better and had the ability to exert a considerable amount of influence in the world. Indeed, Buckley’s work as a guardian of white supremacy was, from Baldwin’s perspective, more sinister than that of the most hardened racists in American politics. Time and again, Buckley’s ends were the same as the racist demagogues he was always sure to condemn; his primary objection to these men was the means they chose to use on behalf of ‘the cause of white people.’ For these reasons, Baldwin concluded, some of the blood shed as a result of the American racial nightmare was on Buckley’s hands.”

The author points out this warning for American politics today…

“The price of victory, though, has been incredibly high. The American Right seems to be in much the same place today as where it found itself over half a century ago. To achieve overwhelming power, conservatives have had to rely on the political energy provided by racial resentment and status anxiety. Much like Buckley, many conservative elites find reliance on such energy unseemly, but they cling to it because they know it gives life to their agenda. For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy. This was true in Buckley’s time, and it is true in our own.”

The book is about 400 pages. If you only have limited time, read the transcript of the debate at Cambridge found in the Appendix of the book.

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