Revisiting the American Dream Through James Baldwin’s Eyes

Going back into black history, and history in general, we tend to find tidbits that are not only relevant but can be used in today’s logic. In this specific case, I’m talking about James Baldwin, an African American writer in many rights. In 1965 he went to Cambridge College to debate William F. Buckley, an American conservative author and commentator.  The famous question: “Does one civilization have a right to subjugate – in fact, to destroy- another?”

In this post, I intend to break down both speakers’ arguments as well as provide my own thoughts and questions. Below I will post the link to the debate. It’s a little long, but it really starts about 14 minutes in.

https://youtu.be/oFeoS41xe7w

Baldwin opens, so we’re going to look at a few of his points.

  • “Now leaving aside all the physical factors one can quote- leaving aside the rape or murder, leaving aside the bloody catalogue of oppression which we are too familiar with anyway- what the system does to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality. It destroys his father’s authority over him. His father can no longer tell him anything because his past has disappeared.”: This is one of the first points that Baldwin brings up. The point I get from this has to do with whiteness and history. The history that black people have about their history glorifies whiteness and praises the euro-centric forming of the world, but neglects to actually teach the history of black people. We have so much information out and about black people that it is absolutely unacceptable for us to only have the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. While they are a couple of great influential African Americans, there are so many more people that expanded the views and the accolades of the black community. This leads us, the black community as a whole, to become grateful for the few scraps of decent human beings that are thrown to us, while not realizing that there is so much more we can aspire to have.
  • “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, and 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”: This point raises a lot of memory for me. When I was in the fourth grade, my parents told me that they didn’t want me to say the pledge of allegiance anymore. This was a much bigger statement than I had thought while I was younger. When I asked why, they told me that what I was pledging to was a lie and that I don’t yet understand the reasoning behind the lies. Growing up, I realized just how true it is. Baldwin’s point right here hits on the normalcy of the American Dream, and how this simple pledge has gone to erase and normalize the history of people of color.
  • “One of the things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars. We are human, too. Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those other people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble.”: This is a point that speaks volumes. Black people are often faced with double standards. We are either seen as the star athletes or the hardened criminals. We are expected to be strong, and we often have no other choice to be strong, because the alternative is facing your death at the hands of systems of oppression. Whereas, those who fit successfully into the sphere of whiteness have the ability to be judged by their personal characteristics before the color of their skin. Upon seeing a person of color, regardless of your good intent, your inherent biases lend to your preconceived thoughts based on the color of their skin.
  • “If American pretensions were based on more honest assessments of life. It would not mean for Negroes that when someone says ‘urban renewal’ some Negroes are going to be thrown out into the streets, which is what it means now.”: This quote pretty much speaks for itself, though it is often ignored due to discomfort.
  • “Until the moment comes when we, the Americans are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America, I am not a missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country- until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. If the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West.”: This quote is very movement, and this along the rest of the argument earned Baldwin a standing ovation. This says so much. Black people are often seen as second class citizens, and as a result we are never seen as builders of the country despite the fact that it was our work that jumpstarted the American economy. But our people are never seen as the ones who came in and helped. We are seen as the background, the less than, the not even worth mentioning. It is this establishment of black people as a lower class that prevents the whole of the American dream, because while we still have this injustice, there are still people who suffer from the effects from slavery, and until they have the rights they are entitled to, the American dream is going to be ripped to shreds.

Now I’ll go through Buckley’s losing argument and pull out a few points.

  • “It is the case that seven-tenths f the average white’s income in the United States is equal to the entire income of the Negro. But my great-grandparents worked hard. I do not know of anything which has ever been created without the expense of something. We have a dastardly situation. But I am going to ask you not to make politics as the crow flies.”: This part of Buckley’s argument is part of what contributed to his loss. He basically says that the end justifies the means. Which would be fine, were the means not the enslaving of black bodies for the building of the country and the serving of white people with nothing in return.
  • “The engines of concern in the US are working.”: Just because Baldwin is present at the debate does not mean that all forms of racism and white supremacy has been erased completely. In fact, it only goes to show that while Baldwin was at the debate, it wasn’t without many instances that he himself faced concerning racism.
  • “There is no instant cure for the race problem in America.”: And while that statement in itself makes a lot of sense, he is saying that in 1965, four centuries after the establishment of racism and white supremacy, we have come only centimeters from where we were before, in a country that has run marathons around other things in the midst. There is no instant cure, but if that is one’s only argument against why we haven’t progressed racially, then it’s a very sad argument.
  • “We must realize the difficulty that brown people, white people, black people have all over the world to protect their own vested interests. They suffer from a kind of racial narcissism which trends always to convert every contingency in such a way as so maximize their own power.”: This makes sense, and it’s very understandable that you would want your race to succeed, but for people of color, that “racial narcissism” is less about higher, more lofty power than reclaiming rights and humanity.

I could continue with these points, but I’ll let you form your own thoughts. In conclusion, I think that this debate was a very popular debate because in this argument, Baldwin chose to hit the points that are faced by black people when trying to attain the American dream, and his argument wins over Buckley, whose main tactics were to slander Baldwin and minimize the issues of the black community.

-JW

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