Television producer Joseph Lovett was some months into his stint at 20/20, ABC’s upstart television news magazine when he was assigned a profile of celebrated writer James Baldwin. Then a young producer, Lovett was elated to be given this opportunity, as he would be meeting one of his heroes. “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.”
On the day of the interview, Lovett and his crew arrived early, woke Baldwin up, and interviewed him before he had a chance to have any drinks. The interview went smoothly. “He hadn’t had a drop to drink and he was brilliant, utterly brilliant,” Lovett said.
Journalist Sylvia Chase conducted the interview. It was held at 137 West 71st Street, the Manhattan apartment building Baldwin bought for himself and his family in 1965 with his writing income, according to Esquire.
The ten-minute interview included footage of Baldwin and his family in the Manhattan apartment building, Baldwin at the Police Athletic League’s Harlem Center, a rehearsal of Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner at Lincoln Center, and Baldwin talking about his childhood as a Black boy and why he chose to publish explicitly gay writing.
But what stood out of the 1979 interview were his comments about white fragility and white fear. “White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people—a tremendous uneasiness,” Baldwin said.
“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.”
Those words are still relevant today. And in spite of the success of the interview, it was never aired. Lovett was sent out on other assignments, including interviewing Michael Jackson, and still, he heard nothing about the Baldwin interview. When Lovett finally asked when the Baldwin piece would air, ABC told him that it had been scrapped, because, “Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?”
“I was stunned,” Lovett said. “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.”
Lovett will discuss the 20/20 segment further on June 24 when he moderates a free virtual panel titled James Baldwin: Race, Media, and Psychoanalysis. It will feature psychoanalysts Annie Lee Jones and Victor P. Bonfilio, as well as Aisha Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s niece.
Baldwin lived a life full of words and boldness in his dark skin and beliefs. Born in Harlem, New York on August 2, 1924, Baldwin spent a large part of his 63 years blessing the world with words, books and a strong belief in who he was with no apologies. He started writing about his experiences throughout his life while he faced constant racism and abuse both in school and on the streets just because he was Black. Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955, his second publication and one of his most popular books.
Baldwin started his writing career at the age of 13 when he published his first article Harlem-Then and Now in the Douglas Pilot, his high school magazine which he served as editor as well. His passion for writing started in public libraries.
Baldwin is a must-read author who touches on freedom, humanity and social issues affecting African Americans and the Black race in general. His honest opinions are thought-provoking and his writing skill makes his reading enjoyable, relatable and unforgettable.
Below is his 1979 interview with journalist Chase: