“Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?”
That was the answer TV producer Joseph Lovett got back in 1979 when he asked ABC why the network hadn’t aired his assigned “20/20” segment on James Baldwin. The network scrapped the piece, featuring Baldwin talking to interviewer Sylvia Chase at the Manhattan apartment building on 71st Street that he bought for his family in 1965.
Now, the segment has resurfaced, and it’s available on Vimeo (click here, or search Vimeo for James Baldwin). Esquire and Open Culture have good pieces on the 10-minute clip, which includes footage of Baldwin at a rehearsal for his play “The Amen Corner,” as well as warm clips of Baldwin at home with family members and friends.
Baldwin is intensely charismatic, and his comments about race, about slavery, about his mission to “disturb the peace,” dig deep and remain on point. “White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people — a tremendous uneasiness,” he says. “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.”
At another point, Baldwin says to 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.”
After watching the piece, the reason ABC never aired it seems clearer. Baldwin’s intensity and honesty, and his open gayness (he talks a bit about his gay novel “Giovanni’s Room”), were probably just too much for the network at that time.