Reimagining the James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Debate
Watch again the video of the original Baldwin-Buckley debate of 1965, and you’ll notice something strange. As these two great writers argued whether the “American dream” had come at “the expense” of black Americans, neither of them troubled to explain what they meant by the phrase, “the American dream.” Baldwin midway through his speech promised that he would do it, but never got around to it. Buckley disregarded the phrase altogether.
I invite you today to think harder about those words that went unexamined in 1965.
The American dream doesn’t mean the American standard of living. Or American public policy of the moment. Or even American “civilization,” the term Bill Buckley in 1965 used instead of the words in the debate resolution.
The man who coined the phrase, “the American dream” almost a century — a writer named James Truslow Adams — defined the dream in language we should recall today:
“a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Adams did not dismiss the important of material abundance. But the opportunity Adams valued was opportunity in every dimension: moral, cultural, intellectual, spiritual as well as material - in Adams’ words, a “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Once you absorb the full radical challenge of Adams’ concept of the American dream, then you realize that today’s resolution — “the American dream is at the expense of the African American” — is not merely wrong. It is absolutely upside-down.
Each man. Each woman. To achieve their fullest development in every direction.
It’s the dream of a world built for all, not for some. The dream does not promise that everyone will succeed equally. The dream is not socialist. The dream does not promise that everybody will or can or should become rich or famous — that’s the false promise of celebrity culture. It promises the removal of every obstacle that prevents people from developing as themselves and being respected for themselves.
Black Americans have lived an experience of the most brutal, dehumanizing subordination. That history must be taught, understood, and memorialized.
But the language of this resolution dangerously misjudges how that subordination was imposed and how it has been overcome.
The American dream of this resolution has not been bought at the expense of black Americans. It is measured against the experience of black Americans. Black Americans are not the dream’s victims. Black Americans are the dream’s test.
That’s as true today as it was in 1965. But much else has changed since then — above all this:
When the Baldwin-Buckley debate was staged in February 1965, black Americans lacked power. In much of the country they could not vote. They were excluded from the highest offices of politics, business, law, education, media, the military, law, the police. Their spending power was limited, their cultural power was ghettoized.
In 2020, by contrast, black power is not a shouted slogan. It’s an all-present fact of American society that must be taken into account by every decision-maker everywhere.
Yet this resolution rephrases for 2020 — in language barely changed from 55 years ago — the pessimism that James Baldwin expressed in his speaking and writing in 1965. It tells black Americans, “Americans not for you.” Such a message teaches only despair. And despair breeds helplessness, passivity — submission.
We are holding this debate at a time when all the hopes of American democracy — depend on effort, efforts by everyone who cherishes the promise of this country.
Your commitment — your determination — will decide the outcome. You are needed. You are needed now. America needs you. And it has a right to ask.
Re-watch the debate from 1965 or read the transcript, and you will see Baldwin and Buckley agreeing on one shared dismal premise.
They both speak of “black Americans” as a group distinct from and apart from “the American people.”
Thus Buckley could say, using the archaic language of the 1965 resolution: “the fundamental friend of the Negro people in the United States … is the good nature and is the generosity … is the decency … of the American people.”
Baldwin replied in the same style. “It seemed to me when I watched Americans in Europe that what they didn’t know about Europeans, they didn’t know about me.”
It is this mode of thinking that needs to be hauled before you for cross-examination today.
At the Cambridge University debate, Baldwin said, I picked the cotton and carried it to market, I built the railroad under someone else’s whip. That’s all true, but it’s not all the truth. He could have said:
He prayed to God in words that provide all Americans with their spiritual vocabulary in times of trouble.
He carried the rifle that preserved the Union from civil war.
He wrote the music that defines America to the world.
He cast the vote that made a democracy of America at last.
He provided the American dream with the most eloquent of its prophets and the most numerous of its martyrs.
Some deny all this. They say: land grabbing was real; enslavement was real; the dead bodies of strikers at Homestead and Ludlow were real; internment camps were real — the rest, just fantasy.
But the American dream did not merely flit across human minds in midnight hours. It was articulated in words, inscribed in declarations, constitutions, amendments, statues. It was recognized as real too, a power that could constrain power. The truth of this dream propelled millions of human beings to work and fight and suffer and endure. That American dream is propelling you too. If it didn’t, you would not be participating in this event today. Why would you bother?
If land grabbing and enslavement and internment camps were the whole of the story there would hardly be any point wasting breath to tell that story. Oppression and exploitation have been the shared experience of the vast majority of humanity since the invention of agriculture. Life for just about everyone, just about everywhere, was an experience of domination, backed by the threat of violence: rulers against ruled, owners over slaves, men toward women, priests upon worshippers. Imagine the world in the year 1492, and except on the nomadic fringes of settled societies, it is all one unbroken stretch of mastery and subordination. The subordinated did not always accept their lot. Sometimes they rebelled. They usually lost. On the rare occasions when they won, they used that victory to subordinate someone else. There seemed no way to escape this cycle of mastery, no concept of what an alternative might look like.
But over the past half-millennium, a vision of something different coalesced — at first slowly, fitfully, and uncertainly, then quickening into revolutionary force. Here, in what would become the United States, a critical mass of people began to think that domination was not only wrong — but avoidable — and not only for themselves personally, but for everybody. They may have held that thought inconsistently. If you wish, you can say “hypocritically.” But when they set the thought in writing, they wrote it for everyone, without qualification, without exception.
That first flash of the idea of universal liberty sparked a fire that warms the world to this day.
The American dream is not a dream only for Americans or dreamed only by Americans. We could list many non-Americans who have worked and fought for their own versions of the idea articulated by James Truslow Adams, without ever knowing that such a person as James Truslow Adams ever lived or would ever live.
But even non-Americans recognize something distinctively American about the dream - which is why the phrase “American dream” resonates around the world, even in countries which may at a particular moment be doing a better job realizing the dream than Americans themselves. What they recognize is that Americans were the first to set a public standard by which the ruled could judge the rulers, equal to equal. That was a new idea in the history of the world in 1776, and it does not matter that those who pledged themselves to the idea did not fully understand its implications. Creators do not always appreciate the magnitude of their creation.
Only once the commitment is pledged does the commitment’s full demand become apparent. People can default on their commitments. They often do. But often they uphold them — as Americans have upheld their founding commitment — the upholding changes them forever, and changes the world around them too.
When you judge this country, you judge it by measure that the founding ideals of this country put into your hand. When you reform this country, you reform it by tools that this country’s own history provided you. To deny the American dream is to deny yourself not only the right — but the ability — to critique and perfect the America in which you live.
As you vote on this resolution today, I hope you will not consider this discussion some kind of contest, either between Professor Muhammad and myself or between the ghosts of James Baldwin and Bill Buckley. I hope you will consider this resolution as a statement by you, about you.
If you vote yes, you are voting to separate black Americans from their country. You are saying that America is one thing, African-Americans are something different — that the relationship is antagonistic, that something called America can thrive when — or because — Americans of African descent do not thrive.
I think this idea is not only morally wrong, it’s logically impossible.
When the resolution was presented in Britain in 1965, the students at Cambridge University voted overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Probably they were voting a compliment to James Baldwin, whose eloquence that day still reverberates. But possibly they were also revealing a lack of understanding of what America can mean, should mean, must mean, does mean to all its people of all backgrounds, all creeds, all races.
When you vote No, you are recognizing African American political, cultural, economic, and moral power — and acknowledging that with power comes a responsibility to use it for good.
When you vote No, you are affirming that that the American dream was dreamed by African Americans too — and that to the extent it has been realized, African Americans led the way.
When you vote No, you are rebuking every cynic, every abstainer, every quitter. When you vote No to the resolution, you are saying Yes to the struggle for a better country and a better world.
I ask you to vote No.