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?
Baldwin: I know it.
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.