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An Interview with Augusta Baker

by Henrietta M. Smith

augusta baker 2HENRIETTA M. SMITH: Will you tell me a little about your childhood?

AUGUSTA BAKER: I was an only child, so I had to entertain myself a lot. There were no nursery schools, and I guess I must have driven my mother crazy with endless questions. My father, Winsfort Braxston, was a master woodworker. I can remember having a doll and a completely furnished dollhouse. And then there was a horse that my father made. I would straddle the horse, hold on to its ears, and push along with my feet! I can believe it was a little hard on my shoes, and I imagine that shuffling sound must have been a little wearying to my mother’s ears. There were other games as well. I was very good at jumping Double Dutch, and I can remember playing Lotto.

Then there were the games my friends and I made up. I remember once receiving a large wooden box filled with all the Bobbsey Twins stories. I read them very quickly because one really did not have to think when reading those books. But the fun came afterwards. My friends and I took the wooden box to my playroom on the third floor of our house and played funeral! We buried just about everyone and cried and moaned and mourned and fell out until play time was over. I can’t imagine what my poor mother must have thought, but at least for a while I was safely out of the way. If we buried a white person, the funeral was less elaborate. We lived in an all-black neighborhood where the neighbors were doctors, teachers, lawyers, and dentists. The only white people we saw were the garbage collectors, the hucksters, the mailman, and other workers. If we went to town, we saw white people in the stores who waited on us! I was well along in years before I realized that white people were equal to us!

HMS: Did you grow up with stories?

AB: Oh, yes. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a marvelous storyteller. She had pale skin and light brown eyes, like mine; she was the offspring of a house slave and master. I didn’t know about those kinds of things until I was quite grown. It was just not discussed in our house. She married my grandfather who was a free black man and who owned a hay business.

She told me the old English tales and of course Br’er Rabbit stories, but not with dialect. As an only child I was entertained for hours with her wonderful stories.

Apparently I was a good reader. My mother taught me how to read before I entered school. It nearly drove my teachers crazy because they did not know what to do with me. Both of my parents were trained as teachers. My mother went to a training school for teachers in Baltimore and did further study at Morgan State. My father was a science teacher, with a master’s degree earned through Johns Hopkins University. Of course, you know he was not allowed to attend the school in person in that time. He loved learning and felt that time should not be wasted on trivia, so from my father my reading fare was the classics, particularly Robert Louis Stevenson. I read everything he wrote.

HMS: And the Bobbsey Twins?

AB: I am sure that a latent recollection of the dialect and the denigrating treatment of the black characters in those stories served as a catalyst for some of the work I did in raising the standards for books about black boys and girls when I got the chance to do so in the New York Public Library.

HMS: I want to hear more about that, but let me learn, first, more about your path to the library.

AB: Oh, yes, let’s see. At a very early age — sixteen — I entered college. I stayed with an aunt while attending the University of Pittsburgh. While there I met Jim Baker, a Lincoln University graduate. Oh, love! And marriage! And later, son Buddy. But I still had a year to go to finish college. Jim, meanwhile, with a master’s in social work, had an Urban League Scholarship to go to Albany, New York, to set up the Urban League Interracial Council. I, the bride, made plans to finish college — a promise to my father — at Albany State Teacher’s College. It was there I met my first taste of open discrimination. My application to do student teaching at the prestigious Milne School was denied. No blacks had ever done anything at that school. But 10 and behold, in steps none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, who was at that time on the Urban League Board while Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York. She was instrumental in getting me into the Milne School. I have a wonderful memory of once seeing Mrs. Roosevelt driving just on the edge of recklessness around the city of Albany in a blue convertible, her hair held down by a small bandanna-like tie and enjoying life to the fullest.

HMS: With certification for teaching, how did you get into library work?

AB: While still in Albany I earned a bachelor’s degree in library science and through one of my instructors, Stith Thompson, was introduced to the enriching wealth of folklore and the exhilarating experience of storytelling. Dr. Thompson taught by telling. And my feel for stories was strengthened when I met and was introduced to the work of Harold Courlander. I came into the public library system in New York, during the WPA days. There were only eight or ten black librarians in the system, and all of them were assigned to branches in Harlem. Most of the librarians seemed to have worked forever without moving up to supervisory positions. My first librarian was Mrs. Ernestine Rose. Then there was Mrs. Latimer. She was a big imposing woman who probably had a first name, but we only knew her as Mrs. Latimer! Dorothy Homer was the first black to be appointed as even an assistant branch head. Anne Carroll Moore was in charge of children’s work. She demanded quality storytelling — although she never told a story! She liked the 135th Street Branch Library where I was working, and so we got a lot of things.

I had to be “scrutinized” by Mary Gould Davis before I was allowed to really start telling. It seems I did in service for a thousand years before she thought I was capable of a full-blown program — and nobody argued with Mary Gould Davis’s decisions. So I had to wait and work and wait. It was during this period, the late 1930s, that Mary Gould Davis started the Story Teller’s Symposium, an annual gathering on Staten Island where the star tellers of each year were chosen to tell a special story. Mary Gould Davis handpicked the tellers each year. To my frustration, I was never chosen. I did not tell on Staten Island until 1953, when I was head of Storytelling Services in the New York Public Library. Then no one could stop me. I was in charge! I don’t remember what I told, but I’ll never forget that I told.

HMS: Who of the tellers of that era do you think was the best?

AB: Without a doubt, Frances Clarke Sayers. She was a teller of literary tales. She could tell an Andersen story and not have a dry eye in the house. Yes, Frances Clarke Sayers was the best.

HMS: How did your first bibliography — “Books about Negro Life for Children” — come about? That was such an important, influential publication.

AB: While working in the children’s room at the 135th Street Branch, I became more and more aware of the denigrating picture of the black child in books that seemed to be among the most popular publications. The first list came out in the 1930s, but there were not too many copies printed. In order to get it past the powers that be, Little Black Sambo had to be included! Then in 1949 the revised edition came out. I was able at that time to omit this book, a story with which I still have trouble, although it is popular with so many storytellers. It represents a true picture of neither the black child in America or in Africa. I remember Charlemae Rollins in Chicago fighting that same battle. She included it on her first list, “We Build Together,” but after that it was gone!

It was also during this period that I used to have long talks with Mr. Arthur Schomburg, who had an office on the third floor of the 135th Street Branch Library. I guess out of these talks my concern grew, and finally I examined our collection and came up with the selected annotated list which was published in 1949. It was also then that I began to think of developing a special collection of quality books related to the black experience. That was really the genesis of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, part of which is housed in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

HMS: What do you think about what is happening in libraries and in the world of storytelling today?

AB: I have concerns for the entire library system and what is happening to children’s services. It seems that with the introduction of “information science” children are being pushed to the back burners.  Library schools are deciding that children’s work has lost its impact; when a budget cut has to be made, the children’s department is the first to feel the crunch. As far as storytelling goes, it seems that young people coming out of library school today are telling themselves that children do not want to listen to stories, so they do not want to take the time to learn them. It makes me sad!

I also think there is too much emphasis on performance! I see tellers hopping and jumping and doing all kinds of things with their voices — or telling those very long family stories that so often mean more to them than to the listeners. But I guess I am just a traditionalist with Mary Gould Davis and Frances Clarke Sayers watching me, so I cannot change — nor do I want to.

HMS: What do you tell students when you conduct your workshops?

AB: I tell them what I’ve always said. Let the story tell itself, and if it is a good story and you have prepared it well, you do not need all the extras — the costumes, the histrionics, the high drama. Children of all ages do want to hear stories. Select well, prepare well, and then go forth, stand tall, and just tell.

Augusta Baker, Coordinator of Children’s Services in the New York Public Library from 1961 to 1974, joined the Countee Cullen Regional Branch Library (formerly the 135th Street Branch Library) in 1937. Among her many other accomplishments, she taught storytelling for many years at Columbia University and is the co-author of Storytelling: Art and Technique (Bowker). Henrietta M. Smith, Professor Emerita of the School of Library and Information Science-University of South Florida, Tampa, was taught her storytelling skills in classes with Augusta Baker and as a member of her New York Public Library staff.

From the March/April 1995 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series, including Augusta Baker’s groundbreaking The Changing Image of the Black in Children’s Literature.

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