Legendary US racism debate comes alive in Avignon, France, reminding world of lingering issues


Avignon, France – Nearly 60 years after the historic debate on racism in the United States, the clash of two brilliant minds, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., is resurrected on stage at Europe’s largest theater festival in Avignon, France. The timeless relevance of the discussion, which recently went viral on YouTube in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, serves as a stark reminder that many of the pressing issues raised during that debate remain unresolved.

The play, produced by New York’s Elevator Repair Service theatre company, was brought to life by actor Greig Sargeant, who was deeply moved by the enduring significance of the debate. “When I watched it, it was shocking to me how many elements and questions of this debate were as relevant today as they were back then,” Sargeant explained.

James Baldwin, a gay Black writer who sought refuge in Europe like many of his contemporaries, masterfully dissected the “structural racism” deeply embedded in his homeland. Speaking to an audience of students at Cambridge University, Baldwin revealed the disillusionment he felt as a young child: “It comes as a great shock around the age of five to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”

Baldwin’s powerful words, including his accounts of being beaten by a police officer in Harlem as a child, resonate more than ever following the tragic killing of George Floyd, which ignited the global Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Interest in Baldwin’s writings has surged, with his eloquent depictions of systemic injustices capturing the hearts and minds of people around the world.

Greig Sargeant, embodying the spirit of Baldwin, emphasizes that the very racism Baldwin confronted remains deeply entrenched in American society today. “Systemic racism is rampant in the US. We have problems with healthcare, we have problems with voting, you know Black men are being killed just for being Black. White supremacy has reared its ugly head continually,” Sargeant declared.

On the opposite side of the debate stood William F. Buckley Jr., an equally eloquent figure who argued against the “unjustified” accusations directed at American civilization. Buckley acknowledged the existence of racism and discrimination but believed that Black individuals needed to take more personal responsibility for improving their circumstances. He staunchly defended the American society, asserting that overturning it was not the solution.

John Collins, the founder of Elevator Repair Service, acknowledges the difficulty of hearing Buckley’s perspective, a sentiment that still resonates today. “His argument is we don’t need to be making accommodations or try to correct the past,” Collins stated, highlighting the ongoing disagreement over history as a significant obstacle to addressing societal problems.

The Avignon Festival, where the play is currently running, provides a fitting backdrop for these debates. France, too, is grappling with its own issues of urban unrest, as the play opened shortly after the killing of a teenager of Algerian descent by a policeman during a traffic stop near Paris.

The Avignon Festival will continue captivating audiences until July 25, serving as a powerful reminder that the struggle against racism and inequality spans continents and generations.

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