My Favorite Historical Lecture

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Debate Video

(Click the link above to skip the commentary and watch the debate)

Since I finished my summer independent study course last week, you will finally stop seeing book reviews on “The Black Atlantic” posted on this blog. For those of you that read some of those reviews, thank you for giving me an audience. Now, I have decided to followup my weekly tradition by posting a video. My favorite historical video.

Recently, I have been struggling to deal with, to talk about, and to understand the Israeli/Palestinian crisis in the Middle East. I have felt a lot of pain and a lot of anger. Not only at the conflict, but at my seeming inability to have any recourse to have my voice heard.  I have tried to work my way through some discussions on Facebook about this topic, but they always seem to end in gridlocked, polarized, and intractable monologues. I find myself very eager to assert my opinion in the beginning (backed by righteous self-affirmation), but after the arguing continues, I become weary, and I cannot find the energy to keep up.

This week, I was involved in one particularly exciting back-and-forth about the crisis in the Middle East. When I became weary of the debate, I logged off Facebook and I turned to YouTube. I decided to revisit my favorite lecture (as I often do when my frustration with the world mounts). While this lecture has nothing to do with the Israeli/Palestinian crisis directly, it touches on some very basic and shared issues of human co-existence. It is this lecture that I want to share with you today. As you will see, I have posted a link to it below.

The lecture is part of a debate between the late African-American novelist James Baldwin and the late conservative writer William F. Buckley. It took place in the halls of Cambridge University in the year 1965 (making it an artifact of Atlantic history?), at the height of Baldwin’s international fame. The premise for the debate was the following question: “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” As it seems, the event was a fixed gig. Baldwin was very well respected at the time, and most of Cambridge considered themselves liberal on the idea of American racial equality. In general, the debate was more of a clever way to get Baldwin to lecture at Cambridge than it was an actual competition. In this goal, they succeeded admirably.

Baldwin is a tremendous orator, and he is in top form during this appearance. He is at turns both aggressive and soft, patient and biting. Those who are familiar with his masterful short work, The Fire Next Time, will recognize the way that he plays with our notions of oppression as a form of one-dimensional violence. Racism and racial inequality, he argues, are not only bad for the victims. They are bad for the perpetrators  as well. As he states, “Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly, but what happens to the man who does it, is in some ways much much worse.” That person does not fully understand the hateful impulses that motivate them. Nor do they understand the way that those impulses are being supported by fear. Most of all, they do not understand that their acts of violence are attached to an even more violent historical tradition, a tradition which is using their body as a conduit.

As always, Baldwin is infinitely aware of his position in history. As he mentions, his speech is given nearly one-hundred years after the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, and, even more interestingly, he draws attention to a contemporary statement by Robert Kennedy that African-Americans could have a black president in forty years. As it turns out, he was almost right. We had one in 43. But, while Baldwin has the contextual knowledge of an historical education, he also has the passion of an activist. He recognizes the ultimate failure of history to personalize the legacy of violence. To leave context after the initial point has been made, and to see how violence and hatred manifest themselves in society.

Unfortunately, there is just too much sheer quotable awesomeness contained within this debate to discuss it all. I think my favorite takeaways (and those things which most apply to any global conflict, including the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which happens to be on my mind) are that all human beings have, at bottom, a system of reality upon which they go about building their justifications for action. To argue over whether one system of reality is right or wrong is to miss an opportunity for change. When our systems of reality collide, and violence is created, both parties have failed. Both parties have lost something. As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has quoted, “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him there.”

What do you think?

Check out the full debate video here.

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