As Aug. 2, the 97th birthday of my favorite author, James Arthur Baldwin, approached, I began to panic. I had no idea what I would write for the occasion. I’ve written about Baldwin before, and there are particular topics that I would still like to write about.
Strangely, I’ve never looked for Baldwin on YouTube all that much for some reason. Yes, I’ve seen the February 1965 debate with William F. Buckley several times but other than that, I’d not paid much attention to the available YouTube clips of his radio and television appearances. My best guess for this habit of mine is that I tend to think that a writer is a writer, and that their major work consists of their books and other texts. However, my flawed reasoning neglects the fact that major writers of the 1960s such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were also major fixtures on television shows like The Dick Cavett Show.
James Baldwin was no exception.
I began YouTube surfing for Baldwin’s recorded appearances on radio and television in July, and was absolutely electrified by a 1975 conversation that Baldwin did with Maya Angelou for WNET’s Assignment America. I had never seen it before.
A few “provenance notes” before I launch into this wonderful, wonderful interview: The warm setting of this May 1975 interview was a table set with bread to be broken and mugs of what appears to be beer for both Baldwin and Angelou, and bookshelves in the background. While looking at it, I remembered that Baldwin’s final play was titled The Welcome Table. It’s a play that was partially based on an actual 1973 dinner that Baldwin had at his St. Paul-de-Vence home in the south of France, attended by Josephine Baker and a very young Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Gates, who owns one of the four known typescripts of The Welcome Table, wrote an essay about that night.
The setting of the meal itself was a welcome table, which Gates called “a metaphor from the black sacred tradition. It’s where the good go when they die and go to heaven.”
The title itself alludes not simply to “Black sacred traditions,” but to a negro spiritual that might date back to slavery, and was popularized during the Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Gazette also says that Baldwin’s last unfinished play might originate as far back as 1967 and was revised because of that dinner, which according to Gates was the first and only time that Josephine Baker ever visited Baldwin at his French home.
But back to Baldwin’s conversation with Maya Angelou at her “welcome table.”
One of the things that made me positively giddy at seeing this video for the first time was that I don’t recall ever seeing Baldwin this relaxed and authentically himself. The effeminate gestures. The jazzy hands. That smile. The ease of the conversation.
The occasional rolling of the head as he contemplates which of maybe two or five or 25 directions he wishes to take one of Angelou’s open-ended questions—stopping occasionally midsentence for a further digression.
Personally, I haven’t been this electrified by Baldwin’s presence since I found a small sheet of address book paper with Baldwin’s name, his St. Paul de Vence address, and his French phone number in Baldwin’s own handwriting in a used copy of Quincy Troupe’s James Baldwin: The Legacy. I have never had it authenticated, but I knew then and know now what Baldwin’s signature looks like.
Baldwin and the not yet “Dr.” Angelou’s conversation runs the gamut. The two talk about life, love, death, aging, homosexuality, success, and most importantly, family. In fact, Baldwin’s family permeates every subject that Baldwin and Angelou discuss during the 29-minute conversation.
My favorite story of the conversation is a story that Angelou tells of Baldwin’s family sending him money while he was in Paris in the late 1940s.
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.
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 to him, in Paris, France ...
And he said so much more.
Baldwin on success: “In a very serious way, it is not possible for an artist to be a success.”
Baldwin on the writing of Giovanni’s Room: “… I wrote [Go Tell It On the] Mountain. I wrote Amen Corner. Forget it. I wrote Notes of a Native Son. Forget It. It was 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.
Baldwin on the assassinations of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.: “… I loved Malcolm and he got his head blown off, I loved Medgar and he got his head blown off, you know, and I loved Martin and he got his head blown off, I worked with Bobby [Kennedy] and I worked with JFK and Lord have mercy … wow, ain’t nothin’ I’ve done, typewriter keys which saved nobody.”
In this conversation with Angelou, he says those words about the assassinations while mimicking his own typing hands, an extremely moving gesture that indicates his own level of pain and trauma from those assassinations that he, of course, lived with for the rest of his life. The survivor’s guilt that Baldwin felt after the assassinations of those Black civil rights leaders is every bit as palpable as anything that he wrote in his account of those assassinations in his book-length essay, No Name in the Street.
Truthfully, in finding this conversation, I feel as if I am the one that is receiving the birthday present this year.
Happy 97th birthday, Mr. Jimmy, and thank you for reminding me, and all of us, that we still have “lots of work to do,” and that a “welcome table” is available for anyone who searches for it, difficult as that search might sometimes be.