- Baldwin in Britain
“…in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place your people [Negroes] can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then by God! we’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land.”—The Judge, “Of the Coming of John,” W. E. B. Du Bois
In his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge University Union, James Baldwin confronts the violent limits of white America’s “tolerance” for Negro opposition. For Baldwin this threat against Negroes is at once genuinely shocking—a look of horror crosses Baldwin’s face when he hears Buckley’s proclamation—and yet entirely predictable. After all, Baldwin understands America as well as any other American writer. Baldwin knows, as W. E. B. Du Bois illustrated before him in his depiction of the white judge from [End Page 1] the “Altamaha plain,” that any challenge that the Negro issues to white America will be perceived and treated as nothing less than an existential threat against the white republic. The founder and editor of the National Review, Buckley is renowned as the especially regressive “father of modern conservatism.” In 1961, in the pages of his own publication, Buckley famously came out against desegregation. Under the guise of state’s rights, which amount to nothing more than the right of the white Southern minority to oppress a black majority in the name of “civilized standards,” Buckley came out strongly in favor of the “cultural superiority of White over Negro” (Buckley 1961). Baldwin may be right when he mocks this notion, “The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization” (Baldwin 1985, 88) but it is precisely this adherence to white “cultural superiority” that grounds Buckley’s determined opposition to landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, with the Voters Registration Act a particular target of the National Review’s opprobrium.
On the other side of the Atlantic, this is what Baldwin faced. The Cambridge Union debate witnessed Du Bois’s fin-de-siècle judge fitted to anti-civil rights purposes. At Cambridge, Buckley was not only true to himself, every inch the haughty political conservative, he was faithful to an American tradition committed to keeping the Negro in his—and her—place. If Buckley’s calling card, as ever, was arrogance (“It is not a sign of arrogance for the king to rule. That is what he is there for,” Buckley once remarked), it was of a very particular brand. Buckley’s superiority was bound up—as arrogance often is—with a streak of mean-spirited paternalism that derives from, even if it is not equal to, the vituperation of the “Altamaha” judge. Buckley does not threaten to “lynch every Nigger in the land” (Du Bois 1997, 181), but he is hell-bent on opposing any movement for Negro equality. Such a movement, the judge suspects, begins when the Negro seeks education. On this matter the judge speaks plainly to “black John,” the aspiring Negro teacher returned from the North to his native Altamaha to instruct his community in letters, numbers and, most importantly, black equality. It is education that teaches Negroes to refuse “their place”; educating the Negro, especially after the fashion that black John intends to follow, is what will “reverse nature.” From this process of teaching the ABCs and multiplication tables flows, inevitably, not [End Page 2] only interracial marriage, Negroes seated in the white man’s parlor, but also Buckley’s greatest fear: the political rule of Southern blacks which affirms, as Baldwin writes, the Negro as a “citizen,” “as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him” (Baldwin 1985, 88). This is what black John seeks to instill in the Altamaha Negroes: to take their places as Americans, in the face of those who despise, fear, and, yes...