Not Martin Luther King, not Malcolm X and not Nelson Mandela. The black figure that I’d most like to have met while s/he was alive is James Baldwin. There is something about how he delivers his point of view combined with raw intelligence and passion (the last two also possessed by the others) that I admire and probably would love to emulate. If I had half or more of all that boy … oh boy,
The video below was recorded at Cambridge University in 1965 during the Civil Rights movement. It featured Baldwin debating William F Buckley, the noted Republican Conservative, on the motion: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin got a standing ovation not just because of his brilliance, a fact, but I suspect also because of the topic. It’s clear the Cambridge students in the hall were overwhelmingly in support of negro rights. So Buckley faced a significant headwind but after much rambling, posturing, finger pointing and exceedingly creepy body language he managed to say three things of some note (1) the American negro enjoyed a standard of living above 95% of the rest of the planet; (2) it’s the negro’s fault he’s still where he is because other immigrants have done better and (3) his coup de grace – a threat to everyone that white conservative America will fight on the beaches and on the hills for the status quo.
On those three points: clearly (1) is beside the point especially since most of the rest of the world had little left over after WWII and the economic collapse of Britain; there’s some truth to (2) in that black people should be responsible for their own destiny but as Baldwin’s speech illustrated that’s impossible in an environment where you don’t have a voice or a legitimate identity or any rights beyond being the shoe-shine boy; and (3) the threat to go to war? The gun lobby in America now makes perfect sense.