When James Baldwin Was a ‘Has-Been’

The video begins with a timer counting down the seconds until James Baldwin appears before us, seated in a living room in the Manhattan apartment building he purchased in 1965. Baldwin is poised, attentive and beguiling as he speaks to Sylvia Chase, a correspondent for the ABC newsmagazine “20/20.” Across the segment, we see him grinning as he watches a rehearsal of his play “The Amen Corner”; we see him speaking to a group of children in Harlem; we see B-roll of him outside, catching his scarf before it’s swept away by the wind. Toward the end, the writer’s mother, siblings, nieces and nephews gather on a sofa and chairs around him. “There’s a price this republic exacts from any Black man or woman walking,” Baldwin asserts, “and that is a crime.” He reaches for the child seated next to him on the sofa. “They will not do to him,” he says, “what they failed to do to me.” We meet his unblinking gaze as his words resonate. “I was 7 years old 47 years ago,” he says, “and nothing has changed since then.”

Today it is that child who might say the same — that he was 7 years old, 40-some years ago. Whatever America has or has not done to him in the meantime has already occurred. This interview was filmed in 1979, before the publication of Baldwin’s 19th book, “Just Above My Head.” It was never aired; only last month was the finished segment circulated by its producer, Joseph Lovett. Watching it, we are staring into a past that has already lived its course, from a present that has yet to learn from it. Baldwin was born in 1924, and we see him half a century later, in a country on the other side of the civil rights era but, by his measure, fundamentally unchanged. Almost the same window of time has now passed in the child’s life. Is the same still true? “What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness,” Baldwin wrote in 1964, inspired by the murder of Emmett Till. “The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes.”

‘A writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance. Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead.’

Baldwin first ascended into the ranks of America’s great literary figures while raising, particularly in his searing essays, unsettling questions about the nation’s past and present, all rendered with a cutting, double-edged honesty: He was unsparing but also generous, lyrical, edifying as a conscience. More than decade and a half before Chase arrived for the “20/20” interview, in the early 1960s, Baldwin would appear on the cover of Time magazine (“The Negro’s Push for Equality”), travel for television appearances and lectures and, famously, debate the conservative writer William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965. As the 1970s closed, though, and the gains of the civil rights movement quelled mainstream fascination, Baldwin no longer roused attention in quite the same way. In 1979, something convinced ABC that the “20/20” interview wasn’t enough. The segment was scrapped. According to Lovett, the reaction at the show was, roughly, “Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?”

It’s not unusual for thinkers’ reputations to fade or swell according to society’s use for them. Our use for Baldwin, who died in 1987, has clearly returned to a great high. Over the last decade, writers including Ta-Nehisi Coates have taken him as an explicit model in their works; an Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was built from an unfinished Baldwin manuscript, and an Oscar-nominated film from his novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Last year, one of The New Yorker’s most-read stories was an essay he wrote for the magazine in 1962.

Among earlier critics, though, Baldwin could face a combination of dissent and humiliation. By the late 1960s, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a 1992 essay, “Baldwin-bashing was almost a rite of initiation” for a new generation of Black intellectuals; he was dismissed with homophobic epithets, or had his erudition interpreted as a capitulation to white intellectuals. (“Soul on Ice,” Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir, was laced with homophobic rebukes of Baldwin and described “Negro homosexuals” as “frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man”; Amiri Baraka criticized Baldwin for “playing the distressed aesthete in Europe.”) Martin Luther King Jr., in a private conversation recorded and summarized by the F.B.I., claimed to be put off by Baldwin’s “poetic exaggeration.” Even that Time magazine profile noted that Baldwin was “not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Negro leader,” described him as “nervous, slight, almost fragile” and “effeminate in manner,” and said he “often loses his audience with overblown arguments.”

What once felt poetically exaggerated, of course, can now feel prophetic. Baldwin was a disquieting tremor that would agitate generations — a role he seemed acutely aware of, even at the lowest ebbs of the public’s attention. “I was right about what was happening in the country,” he said in his final interview, with the poet Quincy Troupe in 1987. “What was about to happen to all of us really, one way or the other.” He could be merciless both on and off the page, having decided, at some point, not to rely on the approval of any audience, white or Black. “Do you think there’s still a chance for today’s Black writer?” he is asked by a young boy, in the part of the “20/20” segment when he speaks with children at a police athletic league in Harlem. “There never was a chance for a Black writer,” Baldwin replies, taking the boy’s chin in his hand. “A writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance. Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead.”

Watching James Baldwin in a 10-​minute TV segment from the 1970s isn’t necessarily revelatory; he is much as we know him today, the same exacting genius. But it comes with the reminder that he was reaching for some truths that would outlast the country’s interest, or lack thereof. The 7-year-old child Baldwin is addressing, you might notice, is only a year or two older than George Floyd would have been.

For many in the America of 1979 — after Jim Crow, after the Voting Rights Act — Baldwin’s insistence that “nothing has changed” might have felt tired. But as of last year, the nation seemed open, again, to the idea that history has not stopped compulsively repeating itself. Baldwin, for all the pessimism he could convey about America, ultimately recognized the nation as part of a seismic, global change. “When I was a kid,” he said in a 1984 Paris Review interview, “the world was white, for all intents and purposes, and now it is struggling to remain white — a very different thing.” He had lived in Europe for years, but understood it to no longer be the frame of reference for civilization or literature. “It’s a fascinating time to be living,” he said. “There’s a whole wide world which isn’t now as it was when I was younger.”

Source photographs: Screen grabs from Vimeo

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