Whether via written or spoken word, there is no shortage of evidence of James Baldwin’s brilliance. The novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist was not only prolific during his 63 years of life, but an unabashed truth-teller when it came to discussions of Blackness and queerness in America, often demonstrating a profound prescience about the state of race relations as we know them today.
A never-before-aired 1979 interview for ABC’s 20/20 proves this anew, finding the writer, then in his mid-50s, at his Upper West Side home in New York, surrounded by family and speaking plainly as ever about the fear that perpetually fuels racism in America, a phenomenon commonly identified in current milieu as “white fragility.”
As transcribed by Esquire magazine:
“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 are 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.”
“The American sense of reality is dictated by what Americans are trying to avoid?” Baldwin later adds. “And if you’re trying to avoid reality, how can you face it?”
The quote feels especially pertinent as we approach Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of the lie of omission told to once-enslaved Blacks in Texas, who were unaware that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, meaning they’d been free for two years by the time they were made aware. But in 1979 (as now, in many cases), few were ready for that conversation. Despite the fact that Baldwin’s 19th novel, Just Above My Head, was due for publication and his play The Amen Corner was soon to debut at Lincoln Center, television producer Joseph Lovett tells Esquire the interview was scrapped by ABC, because: “Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?”
“I was stunned,” Lovett told Esquire. “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.”
As might be predicted, perhaps Baldwin says it best while speaking to a group of student reporters during the segment: “Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead.”
Lovett has now published the segment online, with Baldwin touching on his attraction to Paris, grappling with the despair and depression of marginalization, and sharing his insights on another fear fueling violence in America: the repression of queerness.
“I had been reading [Baldwin] since I was a teenager,” Lovett, who will moderate an upcoming free virtual panel titled James Baldwin: Race, Media, and Psychoanalysis including Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefa-Smart, explained to Esquire. “I thought he was brilliant and brave and speaking to the moment of history that we were all living in.”
“It’s a price this republic exacts,” Baldwin tells 20/20 interviewer Sylvia Chase, noting at one point that nothing had changed in the last 47 years of his life—43 years after the interview, still not enough has changed. “Any Black man or woman walking...that is a crime,” he added. “I pay for that crime with my life, and I don’t believe my countrymen anymore...You can’t have it both ways. You can’t swear to the freedom of all mankind, and then put me in chains.”