The Fire is Upon Us: The Debate Over Race in America

Nicholas Buccola’s novel The Fire is Upon Us tells the story of the historic Cambridge debate between Harlem-born writer and poet James Baldwin and wealthy conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr.

The 1965 debate over the topic The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro, was highly attended, internationally televised, and a critical battle over the American Civil Rights movement. Baldwin fought to defend the topic while Buckley –who referred to himself as “non-racist, but not racially egalitarian”–highly criticized.

Although they were both from New York City and born within fifteen months of each other, the two came from polar opposite walks of life in America. James Baldwin, the oldest of nine children, received his education from public schools in the Bronx and Harlem, while Buckley received a highly specialized and elite homeschooling education where he learned his parents’ views on conservative Catholicism and individualism, which was a form of anti-collectivism and general suspicion of democracy. Buckley founded the National Review, a foremost conservative publication at the time, while Baldwin was writing novels and plays to realistically fictionalize questions about race and sexuality, in order to better understand and demonstrate the issues. The clash between Baldwin, a Civil Rights revolutionary and Buckley, a father of modern American conservatism, still illuminates racial issues in America to this day.

While Baldwin won the vote 541-160, the most important part of the debate to Buccola was that it was “a climactic chapter in a longer story about how two prominent public intellectuals thought through [ and participated in] the civil rights and conservative movements.” The Fire is Upon Us emphasizes how the worldviews of Buckley and Baldwin evolved in the political climate to a true understanding of what happened at Cambridge during the famous debate.