One of my first jobs after college found me sitting in a small office (a room of my own!) eight hours a day, five days a week, typing up transcripts of interviews. If that sounds boring, well, yes and no. My ID card said “CBS News.” I worked for 60 Minutes.
I remember remarkably few details of my time there. But of the thousands of hours of tape I transcribed, one moment stands out as clear as day. Anything that’s not a correspondent sitting down to interview the subject is called “B-roll.” It’s the stuff they’ll splice in as transitions, or to relieve the visual boredom of an interview. This particular B-roll found the correspondent Diane Sawyer and her subject walking down a street, it might have been 125th Street, in Harlem.
“Look at those men on the corner,” Sawyer said. She noted that since they were hanging around at noon on a weekday, they were clearly unemployed. She asked, “Do you think they’re even trying?”
I never saw the footage that went along with this exchange—I expect no one outside our office ever did—but I imagine her subject stopped dead in his tracks. He must have been staring straight at her as he spit out the next words: “Every. Human. Being. Tries.” He lowered his voice, practically hissing: “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
And that was my introduction to James Baldwin.
Now, I mean no disrespect to Diane Sawyer; she was always perfectly nice to me. And she paid out of her own pocket to take an African American intern along when she interviewed Michael Jordan (the show refused to foot the bill). Besides, she was a reporter—she may have intended the question to provoke Baldwin. Clearly she succeeded.
But that day, James Baldwin taught me the power of quiet outrage. Of standing up for yourself, no matter who you’re talking to.
As a young woman in a business culture still overwhelmingly male, and as a lesbian in a world that at that time very carefully distinguished gay people from “the general population,” this black-gay-American from an earlier generation fascinated me. I read his entire catalog that year: fiction, plays, and essays.
Or I thought I had. I recently heard about another book. Maria Popova, editor of BrainPickings, called it out as the one book she would save if her house were on fire. It’s long out of print, but I have the proverbial “friend in the business”—I had the good sense to marry someone who works at one of the country’s largest libraries. And so the moment I submit the client assignment that’s eaten my last 10 days, I plan to eavesdrop on a recorded, nearly eight-hour-long conversation Baldwin had with the anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1970, published under the very ’60s-chic title A Rap on Race.
Many people right now—my clients included—are struggling to express their outrage…I was going to say “at recent events,” but it wouldn’t take too much effort to connect the recent murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling to a string of others, stretching back months, years. Decades?
It’s easy to think nothing has changed in the nearly 50 years since Baldwin and Mead had their conversation. But there’s at least one important difference: Social media now allow us to turn what in the 1970s might have been merely local news (if that) into national and international outrage. Making these atrocities visible is essential, but we need words to go with these pictures, forceful and persuasive words, so that people who’ve never been oppressed, who’ve never had to worry about whether their mere appearance will get them killed, can understand the horror of having their fellow citizens put them in that situation.
I’m hoping James Baldwin will help me find the words to shape my clients’ quiet outrage, and my own, into something useful. I’ll keep you posted.