“The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” James Baldwin declared on February 18, 1965, in his epochal debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the University of Cambridge. Baldwin was echoing the motion of the debate—that the American dream was at the expense of black Americans, with Baldwin for, Buckley against—but his emphasis on the word is made his point clear. “I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing,” he said, his voice rising with the cadences of the pulpit. “For nothing.”
The packed auditorium was hushed. Here was a clash of diametrically opposed titans: In one corner was Baldwin, short, slender, almost androgynous with his still-youthful face, voice carrying the faintly cosmopolitan inflections he’d had for years. He was the debate’s radical, an esteemed writer unafraid to volcanically condemn white supremacy and the antiblack racism of conservative and liberal Americans alike. In the other corner was Buckley, tall, light-skinned, hair tightly combed and jaw stiff, his words chiseled with his signature transatlantic accent. If Baldwin—the verbal virtuoso who wrote moving portraits of black America and about life as a queer expatriate in Europe—stood for America’s need to change, Buckley positioned himself as the reasonable moderate who resisted the social transformations that civil-rights leaders called for, desegregation most of all. Some of the students in the audience knew him as nothing less than the father of modern American conservatism.