The debate hall of Cambridge University is filled with graduates and undergraduates, with handfuls of people still left outside. James Baldwin, best known at the time for his eloquent essays and literature, such as Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son, is debating William F. Buckley, an American conservative who laid the groundwork for Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The question up for debate: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
James Baldwin left his quotable handbook of statistics at home this day and decided to turn the audience inside out. Baldwin spoke of the destruction of his identity, a collective experience among the black community in the United States. The destruction of his identity, caused by the American population’s refusal to accept the growing racism in the United States, adding decades more to the centuries of oppression.
Baldwin spoke of his experience as something that came from an utter shock, from the realization of his ancestor’s upbringing, to the realization of the color of his skin. He expressed that everything in his world was white, from the sticks and stones, to the faces on television, to the faces down the block — all white. He continues to express his shock, the realization that he himself was not white, since he never looked in the mirror before. He explains, “It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or even seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.” Baldwin’s analogy proved his offset. The country in which he was born left no place in society for him; nowhere to evolve, grow, or prosper.