Baldwin spoke of the fear the country instilled in him as a kid and said it still continued to the kids 40 years later.
James Baldwin was a brilliant writer and the clarity with which he cut through the clutter, often disturbed the power factions of society. In 1979, ABC conducted an interview with the writer and civil rights movement activist but decided against airing the interview. Baldwin's strong words about White fragility appear to have been the reason for the interview being buried. Baldwin's words called out the systemic racism that White people continued to ignore and his message is more relevant than ever, in the wake of a tumultuous year that has seen Black Lives Matter protests break out in every state across the country. After more than 40 years, the interview was uploaded earlier this month, and sharp criticism on White fragility still rings true today.
When ABC decided to do a profile on the writer in 1979, it was an up-and-coming television producer Joseph Lovett who was handed the responsibility of the segment. Baldwin was just about to publish his nineteenth novel, Just Above My Head, a story about a gospel singer during the civil rights struggle. The video segment also shines a light on his private life and captures moments of the writer at the tranquility of his home and his family members at 137 West 71st Street, in Manhattan. For Lovett, it was a dream to be doing the profile of Baldwin. “I had been reading [Baldwin] since I was a teenager. I thought he was brilliant and brave and speaking to the moment of history that we were all living in. I was thrilled; I was beyond thrilled,” said Lovett, reported Esquire.
Lovett was aware that Baldwin was a heavy drinker and wanted to catch him fresh in the morning. Lovett arrived at Baldwin's home, woke him up, and had breakfast with him. “He hadn’t had a drop to drink and he was brilliant, utterly brilliant,” said Lovett. “We couldn’t have been happier. He was such an eloquent, masterful speaker, with such a great mind. It was such a privilege.” The interview was conducted by the late Sylvia Chase at Baldwin's Manhattan apartment building.
Baldwin spoke about the deep-rooted issue of race in America. “White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people—a tremendous uneasiness,” said Baldwin. “They don’t know what the Black face hides. They’re sure it’s hiding something. What it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done, and what they like doing. White people know very well one thing; it’s the only thing they have to know. They know this; everything else, they’ll say, is a lie. They know they would not like to be Black here. They know that, and they’re telling me lies. They’re telling me and my children nothing but lies,” he added. While the searing words may have been uttered more than 40 years ago, Baldwin's assessment of White fragility was reflected in the discourse following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement.
Never Aired: Profile on James Baldwin ABC’s 20/20, 1979 from A Closer Look on Vimeo.
The video includes footage from his home, rehearsal for Baldwin's play, The Amen Corner, even a speech at the Police Athletic League’s Harlem Center. His speech aimed to offer hope to kids who had grown up in environments that he had lived and endured. He spoke about writing and told them anyone could be a writer. "There's a greater chance for a Black writer today than there ever has been." He then added, "Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead." Baldwin's assessment would be proved correct in this instance as his words were stifled for years and finally released to the public only after he was long gone. He tells a student, "There's a greater chance for a Black writer today than there ever has been." During the interview at their home, Chase asks Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis Jones, if she knew her son was destined to be a successful writer. “I didn’t think that. But I knew that he had to write,” said Jones.
Lovett was incredibly pleased with the way the interview had gone, and the footage they had acquired to capture his profile. He was eager to see it air but shocked when he learned that ABC chose against airing it, simply telling him, “Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?” Lovett couldn't believe what he was hearing. “I was stunned,” said Lovett. “I was absolutely stunned, because in my mind, James Baldwin was no has-been. He was a classic American writer, translated into every language in the world, who would live on forever, and indeed he has. His courage and his eloquence continue to inspire us today.”
"I don't believe my countrymen anymore. I was 7-years-old 47 years ago, and nothing has changed since then," said Baldwin during the interview, and more than 40 years later, the protests and discourse surrounding the rights of Black people show that America still has a long way to go before Black people can feel safe in their own homes, and their country.