Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Some come to us through formal mentorship programs, others come to us from our workplaces or personal lives, and still others come to us through social media.
But sometimes finding the right fit is a bit of a struggle. Differences in geography, culture, or interests can often make forming a real connection with someone difficult, especially in this relatively small profession. So when you find someone, or three someones, who so completely share your interests, culture, and vision for librarianship…well, that’s special. And that’s exactly what happened to me when I discovered, through their writings, Augusta Baker, Audre Lorde, and Nella Larsen, three African American writer-librarian-activists who saw librarianship as a way to further the dreams they had for their lives and for the world.
These women embraced the unknown, and instead of trying to force themselves onto one side or the other of a world that had no set place for them, they embraced the tightrope walk that is life and dared to write about it so we could all learn from their experiences. These women, so clearly drawn to the helping professions, had a fire inside them that defied the perceived “innocence” of library work and propelled them to effect change in their worlds. Their stories were their activism, and in the creation of their stories they created answers.
Keep reading to sneak a peek into their lives and to see why I admire them so, and as always, feel free to comment below.
In the May/June 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, Barbara Bader shares the story of how a young Augusta Baker originally studied to become a schoolteacher, only to realize that she was interested in a different type of teaching: librarianship. Invigorated by “the freedom that was in the public library,” Baker earned a B.S. in library science and combined this degree with her interest in storytelling to secure a position working in the children’s department in Harlem’s 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library.
This workplace gave Baker the opportunity to hone her skills as a storyteller and begin her efforts as an activist, advocating for greater cultural and linguistic diversity in children’s stories. Her stance was simple: children (and adults) like to see representations of themselves in the stories they hear, and it is the storyteller’s job to make sure that happens. Baker grew to be so talented in the study and practice of storytelling that she went on to become a storytelling instructor and to co-write Storytelling: Art & Technique with her protégé Ellin Greene.
Baker’s promotion of culturally sensitive storytimes resonates with me because I think of how ahead of her time she was and how far we still have to go when it comes to creating and sharing a more inclusive body of children’s literature. And this vision of hers is also special to me because I see her life story as one with which I can identify. I see myself in her culture, her career decisions, and in her belief in the special kind of learning that can take place at a public library.
In 1922, Nella Larsen, who was also trained as a nurse, was the first African American woman to be accepted into the Library School of the New York Public Library. And like so many of us, she studied cataloging and classification, a practice which seemed to her too narrow to fully encapsulate human experiences and academic pursuits.
It’s no wonder she felt this way, considering that Larsen herself experienced such personal duality that she was never quite sure how to classify herself. Nurse, librarian, author, and American child of a white Danish mother and a black Danish West Indian father, Larsen straddled the lines between multiple careers and multiple cultures. Existing in these different realms of society greatly influenced Larsen’s writings, and her two novels, Passing and Quicksand explore the struggle one faces when trying to fit into a culture so different from one’s own.
Nella Larsen inspires me because I, like so many in my generation, sometimes feel unsure of my place. And like Larsen, writing about my confusion helps me work through it and eventually come to embrace that confusion as a sign of an active intellect, not as a sign of having something wrong with me. All in all, Nella Larsen lived in a way that let her actions mirror her values, most importantly the freedom to be all that you are, not simply what others classify you to be.
One day when she was four years old, Audre Lorde lay sprawled on the floor of her local library, only to look up and see none other than the aforementioned Augusta Baker looming over her asking, “Would you like to hear a story, little girl?” With such an influential librarian to guide her, it’s no wonder that Audre Lorde followed in Baker’s footsteps to embrace stories, libraries, and civil rights.
This self-described “black lesbian feminist mother poet warrior” earned her MLS from Columbia University in 1961, and went on to become one of America’s greatest advocates for a number of social causes, including feminism, creative license, and equal rights. After working as a librarian for 7 years, Lorde decided to focus her attentions on writing and activism, eventually publishing numerous collections of poetry and essays, as well as her groundbreaking work, The Cancer Journals, which chronicled her battle with breast cancer in the late 1970s.
Lorde’s willingness to be honest with herself and the world and to seek out new experiences rather than hide from them or settle for the familiar is part of what makes her such a relatable and charming figure. I admire her gutsiness and her truth, and I admire her devotion to her writing, even though it meant sacrificing her stable career in librarianship. In an interview with Progressive, Lorde stated that “poetry is the conflict in the lives we lead,” and I think that’s a beautiful way to think about life, that the poetry lies within the uncertain times and that change is a poem all its own.
Bader, B. (2011, May/June). Augusta Baker: Reformer and traditionalist, too. The Horn Book Magazine, 87(3), 18-25.
Johnson, A.J. (1994). Audre Lorde. In B.C. Bigelow (Ed.), Contemporary black biography (pp. 179-182). Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc.
Roffman, K. (2007). Nella Larsen, librarian at 135th Street. Modern Fiction Studies, 53(4), 752-787.
Wainwright, M.K. (1996). Nella Larsen. In L. M. Mabunda (Ed.), Contemporary black biography (pp. 138-141). Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc.