In 1965, essayist and novelist, James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley–the prominent American conservative and founder of National Review–at Cambridge Union in the United Kingdom. The subject of the debate was whether ‘the American dream’ came at the expense “of the American negro.” Baldwin handed Buckley an embarrassing defeat and one of the most dramatic moments came when Baldwin established the essence of his argument against Buckley by claiming: “I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.”
Baldwin’s claim is startling because he did no such thing. He never picked cotton or the rest of it, though he was only two generations removed from slavery on his father’s side. All the same, he was never enslaved. So why did Baldwin insinuate himself into slavery?
The answer can be found in the two-fold meaning of…
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