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.
The famed debate, its riveting lead-up, and its aftermath are the subject of The Fire Is Upon Us, an exhaustive new study by Nicholas Buccola. In the first book to focus exclusively on this event, Buccola, who teaches political science at Linfield College, traces Baldwin’s and Buckley’s respective upbringings and political awakenings amid an America polarized by the issues of desegregation and racial equality. Understanding how each man came to his own conclusion, the book argues, can offer sharp insights into why Americans remain so at odds on the realities of racism today.
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