James Baldwin: a 'poet-prophet' in good times and in bad

In 1965, the writer, poet and civil rights activist James Baldwin was invited to Cambridge University for a debate on whether the American dream is "at the expense of the American Negro." He made a devastating argument and won. And his historic words echo to this day.

In his 1965 landmark debate, the civil rights activist speaks again to our times

In 1965, James Baldwin was invited to Cambridge University to debate whether the American dream is 'at the expense of the American Negro.' Themes from his historic speech echo in our times today with both prescience and frustrating familiarity. (Cambridge Union)

* Originally published on June 24, 2020.

By Nahlah Ayed

It was February 18, 1965. Weaving together a brutal history, a painful present and an uncertain future for Black Americans, James Baldwin marshalled a devastating argument. 

At the invitation of the Cambridge University debating society, the author, poet and civil rights activist was facing off with conservative writer William F. Buckley. The question: "The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro."

Baldwin handily won.

James Baldwin debates against William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union, 1965

Fifty-five years later, as Black Lives Matter protests in cities around the world demand the defunding of police in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Baldwin's words reverberate with both prescience and frustrating familiarity.

In 2020, portions of his speech have been shared widely in what's been described as (yet) another Baldwin revival.

"We can see its relevance again and again in the arguments that we're having, and I think one of the things that Baldwin would say is: 'that's a problem,'" says Nicholas Buccola, a professor of political science at Linfield College and author of the first book on the debate called The Fire Is Upon Us.

"We need to figure out a way out of this cycle… Baldwin is somebody who can really help us do that," says Buccola, who describes Baldwin as a "poet-prophet." 

Consequences of complicit silence

In Baldwin's rich bequest of writing, several themes emerge again and again where the question of race is concerned: the importance of recalling history. The role of identity in framing perception of reality. The complicity of those who remain silent on injustice or inequality — and the injury they sustain as a result.

"Part of what Baldwin is saying is that when we become complicit in the world as it is, it affects who we take ourselves to be," says Eddie S. Glaude Jr, chair of the department of African American studies at Prince University, and author of Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

"The innocence makes us monstrous."

Eddie S. Glaude Jr, author and Princeton Univeristy professor, says James Baldwin's understanding of the American condition revolved around an idea of a lie — a multilayered lie that presents Americans as the most virtuous, and an example of freedom. (Penguin Random House Canada)

Baldwin also explores police brutality in the Cambridge speech.

"Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman's breast, for example," he says, referring to the actions of Jim Clark, an Alabama sheriff who used a cattle prod on civil rights protesters.

"What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does is in some ways much, much worse. This is being done after all, not a hundred years ago, but in 1965, in a country which … calls itself a civilized nation and which espouses the notion of the freedom of the world."

CBC's Moses Znaimer talks to James Baldwin about racial realities in the U.S. in 1968

James Baldwin on the civil rights movement

4 years ago
Duration 1:40
"How much brutality do you expect people to be able to take?" asks the writer.

In another section that could have been written in our time, Baldwin addresses his present, in which the challenge for Black Americans isn't only the litany of details like "the policemen, the taxi drivers, the waiters, the landlady, the landlord, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details 24 hours every day, which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. 

"It is not that," he continues. It is also the dim prospects for future generations. 

"You are 30 by now and nothing you have done has helped you to escape the trap. What is worse than that is that nothing you have done and as far as you can tell, nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from meeting the same disaster and not impossibly coming to the same end."

'We are in our after times'

In his vast collection of essays, speeches and books, Baldwin offers words for the highs and the lows.

Even at the height of the civil rights movement, after the civil rights act is signed, Baldwin is there, says Buccola, to say "yes, but."

And while Baldwin raises the brutal violence of sheriffs and the dangers of white supremacists, he also attempts to see the world through their eyes — while also explaining the dangers of rooting identity in racial mythology.

In effect, he says that "beneath all these layers, there are human beings who are scared and they're scared of change because any change, is a kind of death. Any change is a kind of destruction of the identity that made them feel safe," says Buccola.

James Baldwin highlights the importance of Americans coming to terms with their history, 'if we don't then there's no hope,' says author Nicholas Buccola. (Submitted by Nicholas Buccola)

Even at his most disillusioned — as the civil rights movement floundered and some of its key figures murdered — Baldwin still found words for hope.

Glaude describes Baldwin as an able critic of the "after times," which Glaude describes as a period between "promise and betrayal."

"We are in our after times," says Glaude. "It's such an apt description of where we are. So much of this feels familiar even as we stand on the precipice of significant change. 

"We need to understand that the Black folk who are in the streets and many of their allies, know we've been here before. And then the country pulled back. 

"So I think in this moment there is possibility. But our history doesn't suggest that we will fare too well. And I think Baldwin would remind us that we are creatures of our past."

James Baldwin moved to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, in the late 1940s but returned to North American frequently. He died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 63. (Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images)

But Glaude adds, there is a "continuity of theme in Baldwin's work. And he comes back to this love thing…if we could only get our minds around that, to kind of get to the heart of who we are, can see each other for who we are... we can bank our all on that," says Glaude.

"I think we ought to. We have to."

Guests in this episode:

Nicholas Buccola is a political science professor and founding director of the Frederick Douglas Forum on law, rights and justice at Linfield College in Portland, Oregon. He's the author of The Fire is Upon Us, James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American studies at Princeton University, and chair of the department of African American studies. He's the author of Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

** This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed.

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