Witness Maya Angelou & James Baldwin’s Close Friendship in a TV Interview from 1975

In the mid-50s, Maya Angelou accept­ed a role as a cho­rus mem­ber in an inter­na­tion­al tour­ing pro­duc­tion of the opera, Por­gy and Bess:

I want­ed to trav­el, to try to speak oth­er lan­guages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most impor­tant, I want­ed to be with a large, friend­ly group of Black peo­ple who sang so glo­ri­ous­ly and lived with such pas­sion.

On a stopover in Paris, she met James Bald­win, who she remem­bered as “small and hot (with) the move­ments of a dancer.”

The two shared a love of poet­ry and the arts, a deep curios­i­ty about life, and a pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to Black rights and cul­ture. They forged a con­nec­tion that would last the rest of their lives.

In 1968, when Angelou despaired over the assas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Bald­win did what he could to lift her spir­its, includ­ing escort­ing her to a din­ner par­ty where she cap­ti­vat­ed the oth­er guests with her anec­do­tal sto­ry­telling, paving a path to her cel­e­brat­ed first mem­oir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The book wouldn’t have been writ­ten, how­ev­er, with­out some dis­creet behind-the-scenes med­dling by Bald­win.

Angelou con­sid­ered her­self a poet and a play­wright, and resist­ed repeat­ed attempts by fel­low din­ner par­ty guest, Ran­dom House edi­tor Robert Loomis, to secure her auto­bi­og­ra­phy.

As Angelou lat­er dis­cov­ered, Bald­win coun­seled Loomis that a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy would pro­duce the desired result. His dear friend might not con­ceive of her­self as a mem­oirist, but would almost assured­ly respond to reverse psy­chol­o­gy, for instance, a state­ment that no auto­bi­og­ra­phy could com­pete as lit­er­a­ture.

As Angelou recalled:

I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.’ The truth is that (Loomis) had talked to James Bald­win, my broth­er friend, and Jim­my told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do some­thing, tell her she can’t do it.’

“This tes­ti­mo­ny from a Black sis­ter marks the begin­ning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women,” Bald­win enthused upon its pub­li­ca­tion.

They became sib­lings of affin­i­ty. Wit­ness their easy rap­port on the 1975 episode of Assign­ment Amer­i­ca, above.

Every episode cen­tered on some­one who had made an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the ideas and issues of Amer­i­ca, and Angelou, who alter­nat­ed host­ing duties with psy­cho-his­to­ri­an Doris Kearns Good­win, colum­nist George Will, and oral his­to­ri­an Studs Terkel, land­ed an extreme­ly wor­thy sub­ject in Bald­win.

Their friend­ship made good on the promise of her hopes for that Euro­pean tour of Por­gy and Bess.

Their can­did dis­cus­sion cov­ers a lot of over­lap­ping ground: love, death, race, aging, sex­u­al iden­ti­ty, suc­cess, writ­ing, and the close­ness of Baldwin’s fam­i­ly — whom Angelou adored.

Those of us in the gen­er­a­tions who came after, who became acquaint­ed with Angelou, the com­mand­ing, supreme­ly dig­ni­fied elder stateswoman, com­mand­ing more author­i­ty and respect than any offi­cial Poet Lau­re­ate, may be sur­prised to see her MO as inter­view­er, gig­gling and teas­ing, func­tion­ing as the cho­rus in a room where code switch­ing is most def­i­nite­ly not a thing:

Bald­win: I think…the only way to live is know­ing you’re going to die. If you’re afraid to die, you’ll nev­er be able to live. 

Angelou: Hey, hey!

Bald­win: You know. 

Angelou: Hey, hey.

Bald­win: And nobody knows any­thing about that. 

Angelou: Yes, yes, yes.

She pos­es great ques­tions, and lis­tens with­out inter­rupt­ing to her friend’s thought­ful­ly com­posed answers, for instance, his descrip­tion of his family’s response to his deci­sion to base him­self in France, far from their Harlem home:

Sweet­heart, you have to under­stand, um, you have to under­stand what hap­pens to my moth­er’s tele­phone when I’m in town. Peo­ple will call up and say what they will do to me. It does­n’t make me shut up. You, you also got­ta remem­ber that I’ve been writ­ing, after all, between assas­si­na­tions. If you were my moth­er or my broth­er, you would think, who’s next?

There’s a lot of food for thought in that reply. The famil­iar con­nec­tion between inter­view­er and sub­ject, both tow­er­ing fig­ures of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, brings a tru­ly rare dimen­sion, as when Angelou shares how Baldwin’s old­er broth­ers would reserve a part of the pro­ceeds from sell­ing coal in the win­ter and ice in the sum­mer to send to Bald­win:

In France! I mean to think of a Black Amer­i­can fam­i­ly in Harlem, who had no pre­ten­sions to great lit­er­a­ture… and to have the old­est boy leave home and go to Paris, France, and then for them to save up enough pen­nies and nick­els and dimes to send a check of $150 to him, in Paris, France!

Bald­win: That’s what peo­ple, that’s what peo­ple don’t real­ly know about us. 

Angelou: One of the things I think, I mean I believe that we are Amer­i­ca. It is true. 

Bald­win: You believe it? 

Angelou: Well. 

Bald­win: I know it. 

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Maya Angelou Reads “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of the Morn­ing”

Watch a Nev­er-Aired TV Pro­file of James Bald­win (1979)

James Bald­win Talks About Racism in Amer­i­ca & Civ­il Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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