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[music] [sound] [clapping] [music] [Maya Angelou]: "Thank you. It's lovely here. [James Baldwin]: It's a nice place. [Maya]: It's a little [Maya Angelou]: It's a little like South of France." [Baldwin]: "Well, that depends on ?inaudible?. [Maya laughs] [Host, speaking over music]: "James Baldwin is an essayist, a novelist, a poet and playwright. He is also my friend and brother and teacher and pen pal. Since he lives permanently in the South the France, and I live in Northern California, we keep in contact by mail. Recently, we met in Los Angeles and had the chance to continue our conversation face to face. [drums]
[music] When you leave your house in France and come to the United States, when you leave your adopted home and come to your real home." [James Baldwin]: "Mm hmm." [Maya Angelou]: "What, uh, what kind of response do you have inside yourself?" [James Baldwin]: "I miss my family." [Maya Angelou]: "Mm hmm." [James Baldwin]: "I miss, uh the, [pause], a lot of people, you know, who, who are part of me." [Maya Angelou]: "Keep you alive." [James Baldwin]: "?no?" [Maya Angelou]: "Yes" [Baldwin]: And it's even kinda speed energy, beat. We join the
Americans, only American Black people, have." [Maya Angelou]: "I know." [James Baldwin]: "I miss that. [airplane sound] When you say my home, it's not exactly my home. It's a kind of asylum. It's, um it's a place where I can work. I have a lot of work to do. And [pause] if you are in the situation whe- where you're always resisting and resenting, it's very hard to-" [Maya Angelou]: "It takes too much energy." [James Baldwin]: "Well you can't write a book." [Maya Angelou]: "No." [James Baldwin]: "You can't write a sentence." [Maya Angelou]: "No." [Maya Angelou]: "Most people-" [James Baldwin]: "I asked my brother, David. We were driving through, we were driving through Harlem the other day. I was in Harlem. ?inaudible? what I was doing there. [pause] And I said to him I said I wonder what will happen to me if I'd stay. And you know David." [Maya Angelou]: "I know David." [James Baldwin]: "Cuz, I mean, you know, I also wanted to stay. You know, I didn't want to." [Maya Angelou]: "You guys are close." [James Baldwin]: "I didn't want to go. Uhh.
David laughed. That laugh." [Maya Angelou]: [laughs] "That's terrible." [James Baldwin]: "That laugh." [Maya Angelou]: "Knowing." [James Baldwin laughs] [Maya Angelou]: "Laugh." [James Baldwin laughs] [James Baldwin]: "He said you'd be dead. Everybody else is. [Maya Angelou]: "That's right." [James Baldwin]: "Whew." [Maya Angelou]: "When you look around at your friends long dead. Lost-" [James Baldwin]: "Well, David is 43. I'm 50. None of this-" [Maya Angelou]: That's something. I'm going to talk to you about, about being 50." [James Baldwin]: "About being 50?" [Maya Angelou]: "Yeah, but that's coming." [James Baldwin]: "Neither of us know anybody our age. My nephew, my oldest nephew is 27, Knows one person his age. Maybe this is a high price country." [Maya Angelou]: "You, your family is closely knit." [James Baldwin]: "I'm a very lucky cat." [Maya Angelou]: "You're very lucky. I fine myself very lucky because I've been adopted into that family so I find-" [Baldwin]: That's not true. [James Baldwin]: "You marching to it." [Maya Angelou]: [laughs]
[James Baldwin]: "You claimed my mother. I saw you." [both laugh] [Maya Angelou]: "I took her, didn't I?" [James Baldwin]: "You did." [Maya Angelou]: "I want to talk about mother and why." [James Baldwin]: "Go on." [Maya Angelou]: "But what does the family feel about you living in South of France? I mean all, living away from them without, say, an arm reach, uh, distance, an arm, out of arm reach?" [James Baldwin]: " Sweetheart, you have to understand, um [pause], you have to understand what happen's 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're, you're 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?" [Maya Angelou]: "?unintelligible?" [James Baldwin]: "It's extraordinary. The woman raised nine children and you, every one of them." [Maya Angelou]: "Mmm." [James Baldwin]: "The difference between me and George, the difference between me and David. The difference me and-" [Maya Angelou]: "You and Will." [James Baldwin]: "And Will. Will, Will, Willie and all five girls.
And, though she was scared to death." [Maya Angelou]: [laughs] [James Baldwin]: "Ooh, no really. No, really really scared to death." [Maya Angelou]: "You mean of your father?" [Maya Angelou]: "After his death-" [James Baldwin]: "No, no, no, scared to death of what was going to happen to us." [dog barking in background] [Maya Angelou]: "Yes, yes." [James Baldwin]: "Cause she knew something we didn't know." [Maya Angelou]: "Because you couldn't then there..." [James Baldwin]: "And there we went and she never blackmailed us." [Maya Angelou]: "Yes." [James Baldwin]: "And she just When I went to Paris, ?inaudible? It was such a rainy day. Mama cam- Mama came down stairs and uh Paula was upstairs. Paula [Maya speaking over James] here's the baby. [James Baldwin]: The baby. And you can't explain to a baby you know, why you have to do what you have to do. And she wouldn't
you can talk to, it's just crying. Mama's, And the taxi drove away. But she let me go, she let -- I think I think, I think, I think about him, she knew how much, maybe she knew better than I did, how much I loved them. And I didn't want her to see me turn into a junkie. No, or. [Maya Angelou]: Or a prostitute, in any way -- [James Baldwin]: No, in many, many ways. Go to jail, 'cause nobody could call me nigger. I had done the post office bit, I worked for the army, I had been up and down those streets. [Angelou]: Yup. [Baldwin]: So, now I had, now I had five minutes, I had to jump, to save my family. [Angelou]: And they let you go. [Baldwin]: That's sounds very grandiose. [Angelou]: No, no, no. But I know because I do know a story.
I know that when you went to France, that with mother Baldwin with all those children, that from time to time one of the lovely stories about your family is that from time to time David and George, the older boys, would work with coal in the winter, ice in the summer, selling, and on welfare whatever, whatever aid to do something kinds of families and still would manage sometimes to send you a little check. [Baldwin]: Oh I remember. I remember. [Angelou]: In France I mean to think of a black American family in Harlem, who had no pretensions to great literature and so forth as such, what is .. I'm using in pips, 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 a 150 dollars 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. [Angelou]: We are black Americans. We have our feet, our souls, our hearts in [Baldwin]: We have paid for this country [Angelou]: Absolutely and [Baldwin]: That's why I can never leave it, by the way. [Angelou]: I know that. Never. And that, that's a lovely thing [Baldwin]: At least [Maya]: about [Baldwin]: I've never deluded myself into thinking that [Angelou]: about that line that you can't go home again. You can't even leave [Baldwin]: You can't leave home. [Maya]:laughing] You can't leave home. You can't carry with you it. [Angelou]: Of course, of course and then create a whole atmosphere [Baldwin]: There are no Harlem are no Harlem in barbershops, beautiful barbershops in Paris. There ain't no Harlem barbershop in Paris. [Angelou]: No. I know. Or beautyshops, [Baldwin]: laughing, where you can hear who's doing what to whom, at what time. [Baldwin]: There's not speed, that beat, that fire, you know.
Well you know, I owe, I owe my adopted country as you put it my you know, a lot. Because it left me alone. [Angelou]: Yes. When French people or Europeans ask you your, ask you about your country, about the United States of America or as I constantly say anywhere, it's what James Baldwin calls it, "these yet to be United States of America," Jim what is your response to the question? [Baldwin]: I had to go to Germany for publication of Beale Street. I was working very hard somewhere in Paris, in fact, libraries and doing research. Right? And I wanted to cancel the tour, because I was into what I was, you know, my thing. [Angelou]: Yes, staying your groove. [Baldwin]: into what I was doing. I got back home to St. Paul and um discovered that the U.S.I.S. I, the tour was for five German cities and the U.S.I.S. had, ah, broken its
contract with my German publisher, saying that, uh, um, the U.S. Information Service is not here to publicize novels and novelists. [Angelou]: How had they had the contract in the first place? [Baldwin]: Well, well grow up, in the normal way, you know the publisher, the German publisher or the French publisher, for that matter, you know, if you come into town and you're an America writer, [Angelou]: Right. [Baldwin]: you know it's a kind of courtesy to the American embassy. [Angelou]: Uh huh. I see. [Baldwin]: And they broke the contract. And this is all over the German press. In effect, I was being banned by my own government. That's not the end of the story. I called my poor brother David, who had just left, and said, "You'd better come back. [Angelou]: David, come, come [Baldwin]: Come and [Maya]: ?cross the mighty waters? [Baldwin]: take me to Germany because once I was banned, [Angelou]: Yeah. [Baldwin]: I had to go [Angelou]: Of course. You had no choice. [Baldwin]: I had to go. [Angelou]: Of course. [Baldwin]: and I went. Now, this is on German soil right And I was in a very difficult position because the Germans wanted to say how much better they were, they were then the Americans [Angelou]: to blacks yes and to you in particular [Baldwin]: And so I had
to say, you've got to remember [Angelou]: 1939 [Baldwin]: You got-, I said, you gotta remember it all started in Europe. That's how we got America. I know this was said the Third Reich you know, and I'm not going to let you congratulate yourselves about the disastrous performance of my own country because I know your performance too. [Angelou]: That's right. And in Africa. In ?inaudible?. In ?inaudible?. In- [Baldwin]: As far as our celebrated Negro problems is concerned, you know, if you really want to know what that is, look out the window. Look out your window right now and see who's sweeping your streets. You call it the foreign worker problem. We call it slave labor. [Angelou]: They're Italians. And Arabs. [Baldwin]: We left them fighting with each other. [Maya laughing] [Maya]: Jim, I tell you, your life. I've- There are a million questions I have to ask and I have to ask you to direct yourself to
some, some, what they call heavy. Young people have, especially young whites, have found that word and they attach it to anything, [Baldwin]: Yeah, they found the word beat. [Angelou]: Yeah, you said something, a man ah, ah made ah, had a question to you about homosexuality [Baldwin]: Oh, yeah. [Angelou]: And you had a response to it and I would like to hear it again and again and again. [Baldwin]: I said, it's a weary, weary, weary question. I said, um "homosexuals is a noun". It might be a, a verb, transitive. It is certainly an adjective, but it is not a noun. To ask the question means you don't really hear about human experience, where it can take, you what it can do, you know. And if you, if you categorize the world in that way, then you lock yourself out from so much." I've known
boys, I swear to you sweeheart, I've known cats, I'm talking about white now cats, too, football player types who went on the needle; went on the needle and finally died, because they were afraid someone would call them a faggot. Well, all I know about human life, and I don't know much [Angelou]: Less and less? [Baldwin]: Yes. When I was young I knew a lot. Now, I don't know nothing, which is a great relief. But, but all I know about human life is that if I love you, I love you. And if I love you and duck it, I die. [Angelou]: Exactly, exactly. Well, then you see out of that, I think is for me, I see the nature of love. The
ability to dare to challenge, despair and to dare to love, which I [Baldwin]: Well, you see you can't prophesize, you can't say, you cannot make a decision, like I'm going to fall in love with [Angelou]: Oh, no. [Baldwin]: um [Angelou]: June, [Baldwin]: the girl that I marry, [Baldwin]: all that Tin Pan Alley jazz, right. You don't know. And yet, it trust life. [Angelou]: Ahhh. [Baldwin]: You have to trust in life. [Angelou]: Ahhh. And when you say trust life, um, of course that means all of it. [Baldwin]: Yeah. Yes. [Angelou]: The whole. [Baldwin]: Yes, all of it. [Angelou]: Ok. Then what does that mean about death? I mean, how [Baldwin]: My death. [Angelou]: Yes, about death. If one trusts life, is death not in that circumference? [Baldwin]: I think, I think, you know, that um, 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. [Baldwin]: And that's just, and that is also just another word [Angelou]: For singing the blues. Death is another word [Baldwin]: You don't know anything about it, right? You know. When I go, I'll go. And where I'm going, I don't know. And it might be you know, beautiful. It might be nothings, it might be, you know I think it's, I think it's a cycle. [Angelou]: I do. I agree. [Baldwin]: You know I I trust my ancestors, becuase I know, however this may sound, I know what happens to me when I'm in trouble. I remember what my, my mother taught me, which was to love everybody. [Angelou]: Yup. [Baldwin]: And when I'm in trouble I listen to something. When I'm writing, I'm listening to something. [Angleou]: Yes. [Baldwin]: You know all these fears about being a writer or being a star, and all of that, the truth is you become a writer
because a day comes your life ?that you have accept? You have to accept the fact that you're not a truck driver. [Angelou]: Yes. [Baldwin]: You know [Angelou]: even if you loved it. [Baldwin]: Even, even, no, no. Ditch digging, I've done. You know, I ain't never driven a truck, but I can, I can still dig a ditch. That is, ah you know, it's a division of labor in the world. Some people would do this. [Angelou]: Yes. [Baldwin]: Some people who will do that. [Angelou]: That's right. [Baldwin]: And the people who produced you, which is what I mean by my ancestors, I'm a kind of poet and I come out of a certain place, a certain time, a certain history, [Angelou]: Right [Baldwin]: You know. [Angelou]: Right [Baldwin]: And the people who produced me whether or not they always love me or like me, well [Angelou]: they produced you [Baldwin]: they produced me because [Angelou]: and you are the total of that [Baldwin]: and that is my gig. [Angelou]: Jim recently, um, you had a 50th birthday. [Baldwin]: Oh yeah I'm 50 years old. Isn't that astanding. [Angelou]: Indeed, ?inaudible?.
[Baldwin]: I don't believe I lasted that long. [Angelou]: I don't either, but I mean you've made a statement about it. [Baldwin]: I don't believe it. [Angelou]: What do you think about being 50? [Baldwin]: I say to you, [Maya laughng]:I say to you, it seems very unfair because you're dealing with numbers, right. [Angelou]: Right. [Baldwin]: I'm 20 years away from 30. [Angelou]: Yeah, not bad. [Baldwin]: And I'm 20 years away from 70. [Angelou]: Not bad. [Baldwin]: Now, you know that seems a little unfair. Unfair in the sense that, all right. Here we go. You can't go back. There's 20 years between 30 and 50 and 20 between 50 and 70 which means, to me, finally that I will have to hang around a while. [Angelou]: And also means that you're closer you said to 70 than [Baldwin]: Aw, much closer to 70, than I am to 50. But something else happens to you when you realize that, something else happens to you. You realize that now you gotta use the time. You gotta use the time. I ain't gonna live another 50 years.
Given my temperament and my stubbornness I might live another 30 years. No, all bets are off [Angelou]: Right. [Baldwin]: but it does mean you gotta use the time. [Angelou]: Could you stay alive, vital and productive, without your family? [Baldwin]: No. No. No way. No way. If I didn't have, if I didn't know that was at my back, [Angelou]: Yes [Baldwin]: the net, cause I'm on a tightriope [Angelou]: Right. [Baldwin]: Ain't no net on that tightrope. Each time out [Angelou]: You're out there. [Baldwin]: it's higher, it's higher higher. And yet, I got a certain safety. We have a certain safety because we love each other. [Angelou]: Ok. Let me just ask you this how do you cope with success, and after that if you want to weave them together that's fine with me, how do you cope with despair? Despair in front of the fact
that the world is saying you're a success. Ok, so, ok. [Baldwin]: I think, but I don't know. Well in my own case, you know, um in a paradoxical fashion which I cannot possibly explain, what is called, what is called success in my own case, right, what came out of despair [Angelou]: Of course. [Baldwin]: You know. [Angelou]: Of course. Life out of death, death out of life. [Baldwin]: I, that's how you learn to live with despair, You can live with despair. Success, I must say, you know is a little like, you know, finding yourself on a runaway horse because you never see it coming. And, also, also, also in a very serious way, it is not possible, it is not possible for an artist to be a success. [Angelou]: um, would you say
that again. [Baldwin]: I said it is not possible for an artist to be a success. [Angeou]: Thank you. [Baldwin]: Once you think of yourself as a success, [Angelou]: You're finished. Finito! [Baldwin]: You forget it. Forget it. [Angelou]: Because, you know what I find is that you begin to believe your own publicity. [Baldwin]: You begin [Angelou]: ?That's one.? [Baldwin]: to take your identity from other people [Angelou]: From something else and you stop experimenting because somebody says, well when you did so-and-so that was such a success. Why don't you do that again? [Baldwin]: Look, when I wrote "Go Tell It On the Mountain," which is God help us 20, 1952. I am 50. But I knew something. It was very hard to describe, um. I knew, and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" was a success, you know, a young man's success [Angelou]: Right, right, right, right. [Baldwin]: a young man's book, and every-, I mean, everybody fell in love with me. I was going to be the great new
folklore hero. But I thought, no I'm a writer. I'm going to, ah, I'm going to ah, I'm not going to write "GoTell It On the Mountain," again. [Angelou]: 73 times, "Go Tell It On the Mountain Returns." [Baldwin]: So I did a play, which I knew no body would do, "The Amen Corner," [Angelou]: "The Amen Corner" yes. [Baldwin]: I put in my trunk for years and years [Angelou]: 11 years, in fact [Baldwin]: in fact. Put it in my trunk, put it in my trunk, you know. One of my finger exercises becuase I was not going write another novel [Angelou]: Right [Baldwin]: at that moment. And then in "Giovanni's Room," very much as a finger exercise, too, and also, an also in order to confront something I had to deal with in myself, because one of the dangers of being a black American, and certainly a black American man, is there's such a complex of ambiguitys to deal with, you know, such a complex of poses, you know. [Angelou]:Right. Roles
to play [Baldwin]: And I had to, I've been playing a certain role. When I was stud, you know, and I didn't want to drown then neither, you know. And I wanted to figure out, to tell the truth, about myself, about where it is, you know. What is it this male-female, man, woman, black white. [Angelou]: Right, up, down, to the right. [Baldwin]: You know, I had to, I had to try to deal with that. Well. [Angelou]: So "Giovanni's Room" came out of that? [Baldwin]: Well, when it comes to, so I wrote "Mountain." I wrote "Amen Corner." Forget it. I wrote "The Notes of a Native Son." Forget It. It was a remaindered. "Giovanni's Room" was a certain kind of hit because nobody believed the man who wrote "Go Tell It On the Mountain" [Angelou]: Could also or would. [Baldwin]: write "Giovanni's Room" or would [Angelou]: Not only could, but would. But there are those who say "Giovanni's Room," until another, that that was one of your greatest and most perfect books. [Baldwin]: A book is always flawed and the writer knows it better than the critics do,
he knows where the flaws are [Angelou]: Long before [Baldwin]: and you become a writer by, I wrote "Go Tell It On the Mountain" about, God knows, how many times. But you never accept the fact that that, alright, this is not "Hamlet," it ain't "The Brothers Karamazov," which had been written already by the way. [Angelou]: And well. [Baldwin]: This is me, you know. And if you don't, you know, there's a certain point you cut, you cut cut, you cut, you cut the performance off, and you've got to get out of the house so you can start again. [Angelou]: Is there any time in life when you start a project that you're not afraid? [Baldwin]: I tell you about, I tell you about "No End of the Street," which after all was written between assassinations.[Baldwin mumbling] I finally, as I say in the end of book, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I was never going to be able to finish
it. Because it was not a journalistic assignment; it was something that I had to do. It was involved with all headlines, you know. It was a very public, no um, in a sense, document dealing with a lot of public events. I finished it, that is, I put it in my desk. My brother David came to see me. David always knows I'm in trouble. And he read it, he came down to the office and he read the book. Didn't say a word, went back upstairs. And he said, um "Have you mailed it yet?" I said "No." So, he went upstairs. [Angelou]: This is in St. Pauls? [Baldwin]: In St. Paul. [Maya]: de-Vence? [Baldwin and Angelou]: St. Paul-de-Vence, south of France. [Baldwin]: In the hills.
[Angelou]: Right. [Baldwin]: And the next morning, he came downstairs and looked at me, picked up the book and he said, um, "ain't you got no envelopes?" [Baldwin and Angelou laughing] [Angelou]: Mail it off! [Baldwin]: And he mailed it. [Angelou]: Mail it off. [Baldwin]: He mailed it, because he knew there's a moment, you know after all, I don't want to go into this really, but you know I loved Malcolm and he got his head blown off, right. I Ioved Medgar, and he got his head blown off. You know. And Martin got his head blown off. I'd work with Bobby K, and I'd worked a little bit with JFK, and Lord have mercy, wow. You know, what, you know, ain't nothing I'd done, you know the typewriter keys, which saved nobody. And it took me a very long time. That's why I ended up in the hospital It took me a very long time to reconcile myself to trying to be a writer again, because one is always trying to be a writer. I don't care what the world says [Angelou]: I know that. [Baldwin]: You know. [Angelou]: That's like trying to be a good Christian. [Baldwin]: One is al-
[Baldwin]: One is trying. [Angelou]: A good Jew, a good Muslim, a poet [Baldwin]: One as I trying [Angelou]: Every [Baldwin]: trying [Angelou]: If you're 80, you get up and you try to make that fit you again [Baldwin]:That's right [Angelou]: that cloak you [Baldwin]: That's right, that's right [Angelou]: put last down last night exactly. So, I have no argument. [Baldwin]: What David did really was point out to me in his laconic fashion that um I had to keep the faith. [music playing] [music playing] [music playing]
For a transcript of tonight's program please send $1 to Assignment America. WNET 13 Box 345 New York New York 10019 [music playing] [music playing] [music playing]
Assignment America
Episode Number
Conversation with a Native Son
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Thirteen WNET
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Thirteen WNET (New York, New York)
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Episode Description
Novelist, essayist and outspoken black rights advocate James Baldwin talked about his career with Maya Angelou.
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This record is part of the Literature section of the Soul of Black Identity special collection.
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Social Issues
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Producing Organization: Thirteen WNET
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Thirteen - New York Public Media (WNET)
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Duration: 00:30:00
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Chicago: “Assignment America; 119; Conversation with a Native Son,” 1975-05-13, Thirteen WNET, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
MLA: “Assignment America; 119; Conversation with a Native Son.” 1975-05-13. Thirteen WNET, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <>.
APA: Assignment America; 119; Conversation with a Native Son. Boston, MA: Thirteen WNET, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from