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