Watch a Never-Aired TV Profile of James Baldwin (1979)

In 1979, just a cou­ple of months into his stint with 20/20, ABC’s fledg­ling tele­vi­sion news mag­a­zine, pro­duc­er and doc­u­men­tar­i­an Joseph Lovett was “beyond thrilled” to be assigned an inter­view with author James Bald­win, whose work he had dis­cov­ered as a teen.

Know­ing that Bald­win liked to break out the bour­bon in the after­noon, Lovett arranged for his crew to arrive ear­ly in the morn­ing to set up light­ing and have break­fast wait­ing before Bald­win awak­ened:

He hadn’t had a drop to drink and he was bril­liant, utter­ly bril­liant. We couldn’t have been hap­pi­er.

Pio­neer­ing jour­nal­ist Sylvia Chase con­duct­ed the inter­view. The seg­ment also includ­ed stops at Lin­coln Cen­ter for a rehearsal of Baldwin’s play, The Amen Cor­ner, and the Police Ath­let­ic League’s Harlem Cen­ter where Bald­win (and per­haps the cam­era) seems to unnerve a teen reporter, cup­ping his chin at length while answer­ing his ques­tion about a Black writer’s chances:

There nev­er was a chance for a Black writer.  Lis­ten, a writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance. Right? Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead. But to answer your ques­tion, there’s a greater chance for a Black writer today than there ever has been.

In the Man­hat­tan build­ing Bald­win bought to house a num­ber of his close-knit fam­i­ly, Chase cor­ners his moth­er in the kitchen to ask if she’d had any inkling her son would become such a suc­cess.

“No, I didn’t think that,” Mrs. Bald­win cuts her off. “But I knew he had to write.”

Bald­win speaks frankly about out­ing him­self to the gen­er­al pub­lic with his 1956 nov­el Giovanni’s Room and about what it means to live as a Black man in a nation that has always favored its white cit­i­zens:

The Amer­i­can sense of real­i­ty is dic­tat­ed by what Amer­i­cans are try­ing to avoid. And if you’re try­ing to avoid real­i­ty, how can you face it?

Near­ly 35 years before Black Lives Matter’s for­ma­tion, he tack­les the issue of white fragili­ty by telling Chase, “Look, I don’t mean it to you per­son­al­ly. I don’t even know you. I have noth­ing against you. I don’t know you per­son­al­ly, but I know you his­tor­i­cal­ly. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t swear to the free­dom of all mankind and put me in chains.”

The fin­ished piece is a superb, 60 Min­utes-style pro­file that cov­ers a lot of ground, and yet, 20/20 chose not to air it.

After the show ran Chase’s inter­view with Michael Jack­son, pro­duc­er Lovett inquired as to the delay and was told that no one would be inter­est­ed in a “queer, Black has-been”:

I was stunned, 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, and would live on for­ev­er, and indeed he has. His courage and his elo­quence con­tin­ue to inspire us today.

On June 24, Joseph Lovett will mod­er­ate James Bald­win: Race, Media, and Psy­cho­analy­sis, a free vir­tu­al pan­el dis­cus­sion cen­ter­ing on his 20/20 pro­file of James Bald­win, with psy­cho­an­a­lysts Vic­tor P. Bon­fil­io and Annie Lee Jones, and Baldwin’s niece, author Aisha Kare­fa-Smart. Reg­is­ter here.

H/T to author Sarah Schul­man

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why James Baldwin’s Writ­ing Stays Pow­er­ful: An Art­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

Watch the Famous James Bald­win-William F. Buck­ley Debate in Full, With Restored Audio (1965)

James Baldwin’s One & Only, Delight­ful­ly-Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book, Lit­tle Man Lit­tle Man: A Sto­ry of Child­hood (1976)

Lis­ten to James Baldwin’s Record Col­lec­tion in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spo­ti­fy Playlist

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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