Baldwin v Buckley: legendary US racism debate still has sting

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It was a legendary debate about racism in the United States between two of the country’s great minds. One a gay Black writer, the other a blue-blooded white dandy and leading thinker of the American right.

They went toe-to-toe over whether “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro” at Britain’s Cambridge Union — the world’s oldest debating society — in 1965.

Now the epic joust between novelist James Baldwin and the influential conservative author and editor William F. Buckley Jr is being brought to the stage after nearly 60 years at Europe’s biggest theatre festival in Avignon, France.

And, as the play’s creators point out, few of the burning issues raised in the debate — which went viral when it resurfaced on YouTube in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement — have changed.

“When I watched it, it was shocking to me how many elements and questions of this debate were as relevant today as they were back then,” said Greig Sargeant, the actor who brought it to the stage with New York’s Elevator Repair Service theatre company.

Baldwin, who like many Black American writers of his time left the US for France and Europe, calmly dissected the “structural racism” of his homeland.

“It comes as a great shock around the age of five to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, has not pledged allegiance to you,” he told the audience of students at Cambridge University.

“It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”

Baldwin wrote memorably of being beaten by a police officer in Harlem when he was 10 in his semi-autobiographical “Go Tell It On The Mountain”. And interest in the great stylist’s work has soared since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in 2020 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

  • ‘Systemic racism’ –

For Sargeant, the racism of which Baldwin wrote remains endemic.

“Systemic racism is rampant in the US. We have problems with healthcare, we have problems with voting, you know Black men are being killed just for being Black. White supremacy has reared its ugly head continually.”

Opposite Baldwin was the equally eloquent figure of Buckley, who argued that these “accusations against our civilization are unjustified”.

“There is no miracle remedy to the racial problem in America,” he insisted, saying the solution was certainly not to overturn American society.

He acknowledged racism and discrimination, but said Black people needed to do more themselves to improve their lot.

“The most mobile society in the world is the United States of America. And it is precisely that mobility which will give opportunities to the Negroes which they must be encouraged to take,” he said.

“It’s difficult to hear Buckley’s point of view,” said the company’s founder John Collins, which still echoes today. “His argument is we don’t need to be making accommodations or try to correct the past.

“It shows that part of the reason that we have many of the problems that we have is that we don’t even agree on the history.”

But the resonances are not only American, he said, with France convulsed by urban unrest as the play opened after the killing of a teenager of Algerian descent by a policeman at a traffic stop near Paris.

The Avignon Festival runs until July 25.


©️ Agence France-Presse

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