Archival Spotlight: Rediscovered Maya Angelou Series “Blacks, Blues,Black!”

In 2009, Alex Cherian of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive found an unidentified 16mm  reel in a can simply labeled “Dr. Angelou.” His inspection of the film revealed stunning color footage of Maya Angelou touring the neighborhood of Watts and speaking with another woman, an activist and scholar, about the history of race riots. Though it was discovered in the KQED collection, nothing on the can or in the footage offered any information about the material’s source.

188781 MaryJaneHewitt

In a recent interview, Cherian said that he was curious about the identity of the other woman in the clip and eager to find out where the footage came from. After asking around about Angelou’s television appearances, some colleagues mentioned that they had memories of a public television series called “Blacks, Blues, Black!” that she had hosted in the late 1960s. Yet there was nothing with this title in the KQED collection, and he came up short in his many calls to universities and libraries in his search for the program. Calls to Dr. Angelou’s office revealed that they were also eager to recover the series, but  had no idea if it still existed. “At this point,” Cherian said, “I was wondering if it had been destroyed.”

Alex Cherian at work

In 2013, Alex placed a call to the Library of Congress and sure enough, a search located the title “Blacks, Blues, Black!” in the database, but there was a hitch. “The Library of Congress couldn’t tell me anything about it,” said Cherian. The collection was a deposit by WNET, meaning that it was not for public use. Contacts at WNET confirmed that they had deposited the 10-part 1968 series on two-inch videotapes, but as far as they knew, nothing had been done with them since. To complicate matters, they weren’t really sure who held the copyright. Cherian offered to have the television archive re-master the tapes, and perhaps the show’s credits would then give insight into the copyright holder. From there, the archive raised the funds needed for the transfer in under a year through licensing fees from local commercial work. Upon completion, NET agreed that KQED was most likely the holder of the copyright, and the digitization initiative moved forward.

Two weeks before Dr. Angelou’s death, Cherian once again contacted her office assistant Mrs. Patricia Casey, who relayed the message that Angelou was “over the moon” about the rediscovery of her series.

Cherian discovered that the woman speaking with Dr. Angelou in the first fragment (which turned out to be from episode 9) was Mary Jane Hewitt of UCLA. He hopes that Dr. Hewitt will have a chance to revisit her conversation with Dr. Angelou.

Blacks, Blues, Black! is a fascinating document of a brief period of time, following the assassination of Dr. King, when a politicized black perspective found a place on the public airways. Its rediscovery places it in conversation with other shows from the same period like Soul! And Black Journal; programs that Devorah Heitner noted in her recent book Black Power TV, “created both local and national ‘black public squares’ on the air” (15).

In the series introduction, Dr. Angelou explains that much of American culture and society—ranging from music and literature to gesture and affectation—is rooted in, or has been taken from, African Culture. The program’s focus is uplift and education through Afrocentrism and a “Black is Beautiful” outlook, cultural movements associated with this late-1960s moment. At the same time, Angelou and Hewitt’s historically-situated discussion of the complexities of racial oppression and rioting continues to resonate (#fergusonsyllabus).

The full series is available through the Bay Area TV Archive’s digital collections.

For more on the rediscovery of the series, see the SF State News coverage: “Classic African American culture series rediscovered”

If you have any information regarding “Blacks, Blues, Black!” contact Alex Cherian at acherian@sfsu.edu. All information will be added to the series record within the Bay Area TV Archive.

~Noelle Griffis

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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