My Own Invention

Stories as Sustenance: Augusta Baker as an inspiration.

by Rhonda Jeffries

Rhonda Jeffries is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Performance Traditions Among African American Teachers (1997) and co-editor of Black Women in the Field: Experiences Understanding the Self and Others through Qualitative Research (in press).

It became a ritual to read to my oldest daughter at night after she was tucked into bed. On many nights she was content to have a book read to her, but every now and then she wanted me to tell her a story. Now, I am no Augusta Baker (and if you don't know who that is, just hold your horses, I'm getting there), but I usually managed to come up with something that she found entertaining. The stories she grew to love best were the ones I told about a little girl named Rhonda who eventually grew up to be her mom. I will spare you the details, but somehow the act of storytelling transcended the tale and became as important as the story itself. This has to be true because I know my stories were not that good.

Augusta Baker, however, could tell a good story, and her life and work were dedicated to using the craft of storytelling to preserve the oral history tradition. She encouraged the use of storytelling to educate and, more specifically, to capture children's thirst for knowledge through this medium. Stories help to recognize and validate people's lives and are perfect for helping children relate to the world around them. Children more readily understand abstract information connected to a good story and, ultimately, remember the information, not in isolation but because of the story in which it is framed.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, 1 April 1911, Augusta Baker focused her storytelling craft on children's stories. During her accomplished career as a children's librarian with the New York Public Library, Baker received the first Dutton-McCrae Award in 1953 for advanced study in library work with children as well as numerous other awards. She served as consultant to many organizations and programs including Sesame Street. In 1980, Baker joined the University of South Carolina and assumed the position of Storyteller-in-Residence. This position was created especially for Baker and her goal while serving in this capacity was to teach others how to create enthusiasm in children about stories and reading.

A(ugusta) Baker's Dozen: A Celebration of Stories is an annual festival recognizing the importance of stories and storytelling by honouring an extraordinary woman, Augusta Baker. This festival began in 1986 through the joint efforts of the College of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina and the Richland County Public Library. The celebration is held in the spring of each year and is open to the public. Featuring authors, illustrators, and storytellers, the two-day festival includes a keynote address and focuses on Baker's lifelong dedication to the creation and expansion of African American children's literature, the development of literacy skills, and the increased usage of libraries among children and adults. More importantly, the festival maintains Baker's commitment to practising storytelling as a mechanism for acquiring and expanding educational endeavours. Augusta Baker died on 23 February 1998 but with the assistance of this grand storytelling celebration, her legacy lives on

Additional information can be found at the following web sites. Augusta Baker: A Master Storyteller is a brief illustrated biography. The Augusta Baker Papers are among the Manuscripts Collection in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.

Well before there were computers and web sites or even pencils and paper, stories were a part of human existence. The act of storytelling is elemental to the oral tradition and has sustained civilizations for centuries. It will continue to be an aspect of educational development and humanity, and the A(ugusta) Baker's Dozen Storytelling Festival strengthens the continuity and viability of the story.

So, the next time you sit down to tell a child a story, voluntarily or otherwise, remember that the act of storytelling is as important as the story. The story does not have to be elaborate or full of adventure. Although a moral to the story never hurts, the story does not even have to be that good. The story simply needs to be heart-felt and delivered with the intention of making that child want to hear and read more stories. This has to be true because even now that my daughter is an accomplished reader and rarely needs my assistance to enjoy a good story, she still requests from time to time a story about that little girl named Rhonda.

Rhonda Jeffries

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"Stories as Sustenance - Augusta Baker as an inspiration"
© Rhonda Jeffries , 2000.
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