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From the Archive: Maya Angelou Hosts 1968 Series 'Blacks, Blues, Black!'

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To celebrate Black History Month, we will be highlighting clips from the KQED video archive throughout February. All clips have been made available by the Bay Area TV Archive at San Francisco State University.

The above clip features three excerpts from the series "Blacks, Blues, Black!" The material includes Maya Angelou reciting the poem "A Letter to an Aspiring Junkie," a performance and interview she did with legendary blues guitarist B.B. King, and a visit to Martin Luther King School in San Francisco.

In 1968, Maya Angelou wrote and produced a 10-part series for KQED called "Blacks, Blues, Black!" The series explored the influence of African-American culture on American society, and featured episodes on African history, art, Africanisms and "violence in the black American world."

After airing in the summer of 1968, "Blacks, Blues, Black!" was lost and unavailable for decades. Angelou herself had reportedly been searching for the series for years. Her representatives reached out to the Bay Area TV archive as early as 2005 looking for it, but there was no trace of the series there or in any other local archive, including KQED's.

In 2009, San Francisco State film archivist Alex Cherian was working on a project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, sifting through thousands of cans of film, when he came across one canister with a single handwritten word scribbled on the outside: "Angelou."


Intrigued, Cherian queued up the film to find the poet touring a neighborhood in Watts, just a few years after the 1965 riots had ripped through that community. In the segment, which Cherian would later learn was part of the ninth episode, Angelou says the conflicts in Watts "represented a people, a race fighting for survival."

"The material was so compelling, I wanted to find the whole series," Cherian says. "I assumed it would be relatively simple. It was not."

SF State film archivist Alex Cherian pictured in a 2011 short film produced by KPIX. (SF Bay Area TV Archive)
SF State film archivist Alex Cherian pictured in a 2011 short film produced by KPIX. (SF Bay Area TV Archive)

He spent the next four years looking for any information about the series but found virtually nothing. In early 2013, on a whim, he called the Library of Congress and learned that they had the entire 10-hour series preserved on two-inch videotape.

So why did the Library have it? To make a long story short, KQED co-produced many films with National Educational Television, a public broadcasting predecessor to PBS in the sixties. When NET dissolved in 1970, a part of their archive including KQED's "Blacks, Blues, Black!" was transferred to WNET, New York City's public media affiliate. At some point after that, WNET deposited a small sampling of this inherited archive at the Library of Congress, where it sat untouched for decades.

Until Cherian called in 2013.

Maya Angelou interviewing B.B. King in an episode about music from "Blacks, Blues, Black!"
Maya Angelou interviewing B.B. King in an episode about music from "Blacks, Blues, Black!" (KQED)

After determining that KQED was the copyright holder and securing permission, the Library of Congress agreed to digitize the series, at a cost of close to $5,000. Over the next year, the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State, where the Bay Area TV Archive is housed, was able to raise the necessary funds, mainly through commercial licensing for Bay Area television stations.

At that point, confident that "Blacks, Blues, Black!" would finally be made widely available again, Cherian reached out to Maya Angelou's representatives to share the good news. In an email dated May 14, 2014, Angelou's office manager relayed that the poet was "over the moon" that the series had been found.

Two weeks later, on May 28, Angelou passed away.

By that time the hot summer months had set in, and with them another delay. "It turns out the Library of Congress doesn’t work with old video in the humid season," Cherian said. So the restoration process was put on hold until November.

Finally, last month, Cherian received the full 10 hours of uncompressed digital masters of "Blacks, Blues, Black!" All ten episodes are now freely available online.

According to Cherian, an American Masters documentary film about Dr. Angelou's life, set to be released in 2016 and endorsed by her family, may use some of the unique footage rediscovered in this series.

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.

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