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The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America

The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America



On February 18, 1965, an overflowing crowd packed the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to witness a historic televised debate between James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and William F. Buckley, Jr., a fierce critic of the movement and America’s most influential conservative intellectual. The topic was “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” and no one who has seen the debate can soon forget it. Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is upon Us is the first book to tell the full story of the event, the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the decades-long clash between the men continues to illuminate America’s racial divide today.

Born in New York City only fifteen months apart, the Harlem-raised Baldwin and the privileged Buckley could not have been more different, but they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement. By the time they met in Cambridge, Buckley was determined to sound the alarm about a man he considered an “eloquent menace.” For his part, Baldwin viewed Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness of the American soul. The stage was set for an epic confrontation that pitted Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy.

A remarkable story of race and the American dream, The Fire Is upon Us reveals the deep roots and lasting legacy of a conflict that continues to haunt our politics.



Publication Date



Princeton University Press




American Politics | Ethics and Political Philosophy | Political History | Political Science | Politics and Social Change | United States History


Description and cover image courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Subject Areas

Baldwin, James, 1924-1987 -- Political and social views; Buckley, William F., Jr., 1925-2008; African Americans -- Social conditions -- 20th century; United States -- Race relations -- 20th century

Author/Editor Bio

Nicholas Buccola is Professor of Political Science at Linfield College. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, an M.A. from the University of Southern California, a B.S. in Political Science from Santa Clara University, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Santa Clara University.


"Both a dual biography of Buckley and Baldwin and an acute commentary on a great intellectual prizefight. . . . [Nicholas Buccola] deftly guides the reader through the rhetorical and philosophical moves of Baldwin’s speech. . . . The Fire Is Upon Us becomes revelatory in its interpretation of Buckley’s performance. . . . It is tempting to view the Baldwin-Buckley debate as a small victory for the idea of racial equality: Baldwin carried the floor vote 544 to 164. But part of the wisdom of The Fire Is Upon Us is that it leaves the import of the evening open to question." - Thomas Meaney, New York Times Book Review

"The Fire Is Upon Us is written for readers on both the left and the right, its prose wonderfully accessible . . . [and it] holds a mirror up to the strident political and racial divisions of the U.S. in 2019. The language may be a little different today from what Baldwin and Buckley used, but the sharp terms of the debate over whether people of color in the United States get to have the American dream remains the same then as now." - Gabrielle Bellot, The Atlantic

"With flair and grace, Nicholas Buccola provides the unforgettable backstory to a momentous debate—a clash of antiracist and racist ideas—over the very meaning of the American dream. It is a debate that still resonates today. A vital read." - Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist

The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America