Thursday, February 12, 2015

Celebrating Black History Month

LaMargo Branch, Interlibrary Loan Specialist with the Blagg-Huey Library on the Denton campus of TWU, 
dressed in finery from her extensive African artifact collection.  Dresses like the one LaMargo is wearing, 
called boubou, are some of the pieces LaMargo generously shares with library patrons every year during 
Black History Month.  Next to LaMargo is more of the collection amassed over two  decades.  Photograph by 
Sean Spear.  February 9, 2015.
Editor's Note:  February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history (  The Blagg-Huey Library on the Denton campus of TWU is honored to join this celebration, most notably in the form of an exhibit of African artifacts from the extensive personal collection of Interlibrary Loan Specialist LaMargo Branch.  

This exhibit has become something of an annual tradition in its own right--LaMargo has generously shared pieces from her collection with library patrons every year since 2004.  Dozens of them, including several colorful African dresses, are currently on display in the first-floor lobby of the Blagg-Huey Library.  This exhibit is free and open to the public during regular library hours through the end of February.

LaMargo, recipient of the 2014 Pioneer for Diversity staff award in recognition of her passion for diversity and her mission to promote cultural awareness, talked with me at the time about the award, her amazing collection--and the reason she hasn't been to Africa.  That interview is reprinted below.  Pioneer for Diversity Staff Award Goes To LaMargo Branch of the Denton Campus Library.  May 14, 2014.

Check It Out, The TWU Libraries Blog (CIO)  First of all, congratulations on receiving this award.
LaMargo Branch (LB)  Thank you.

CIO  How long have you been working at TWU?
LB  Since August 25th, 2003.

CIO  Every year you share a portion of your personal African artifact collection with the patrons of the Blagg-Huey Library on the Denton campus.  Are there other places where you do this?
LB  Yes.  I do it for my church, Friendship Baptist Church of the Colony, and for the Office of Intercultural Services here at TWU.

An intricately carved Djembes, a rare drum from Madagascar, is one 
of the many African artifacts now on display at the Blagg-Huey Library on 
the Denton campus of TWU.  The pieces are from the personal collection of 
library staff member LaMargo Branch, who has put together colorful 
exhibit for the enjoyment of library patrons during Black History Month
--something she has done every year for over a decade.  Photograph by 
Sean Spear.  February 9, 2015.
CIO  How did your collection begin?
LB  I started it in the nineties in Champaign, Illinois while I was working for the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library.  Kids would come to the library and want to know about their culture.  At first I was pulling out books for them.  Later I started collecting pieces here and there, and would bring them to the library for displays.  One piece was a large wooden Ashanti stool with an elephant on it, which I still have.  Kids need to see things and feel them—it helps them learn, helps them with comprehension.  That’s how I look at it.

CIO  How did you start bringing pieces of your collection to TWU? 
LB  Well, February is Black History Month, and I’ve always worn an African dress for that.  A librarian here asked what I was wearing, and started talking with me about it.  Dawn Letson, former head librarian in the Woman’s Collection, asked if I had enough materials to do a display for Black History Month.  She chuckles.  I said I did.  That weekend I did a display at the library--I think it was featured in the LassoThat was in 2004, and I’ve been doing it every year since.

CIO  Do you have a favorite piece?
LB  Oh, gosh.  I have pieces that are favorites.  There’s a Massai warrior, a wooden sculpture about a foot high.  Also a multicolored Massai headdress, or gelee.  Oh!  My drum from Ghana—it has faces carved into it.  These pieces are unique.  The drum is made of wood that can’t be cut any more.  You’ll never find another drum like that one.

CIO  The dresses are stunning.  What are they called?
LB  They’re called bouba or boubou—it depends where they’re from. The fabrics are all different, and some are one-piece dresses, where others are two pieces—a top and skirt—or even three.  Some have headpieces.  Original pieces are very expensive.  Sometimes I bought African fabrics in Illinois and had dresses made for me.  You can tell the difference between what you buy, and what is original.  The fabrics are different, the designs are different.

CIO  Where did you get your bouba and boubou?
LB  My sister traveled, and she bought my first dress in Nigeria.  I’ve had students give me dresses.  A mother of a student once gave me three from Tanzania. 

CIO  You’ve been to a few Pioneers of Diversity luncheons, isn’t that right?
LB  Annita (Owens, a librarian with the Blagg-Huey Library) took me to my first one in 2004.  Three or four years ago Michelle Prudhomme-Coleman saw a display I did for the library, and asked me to do one for them.

CIO  What was your reaction, and your family’s, when you first learned you were receiving a Pioneer of Diversity award?
LB  When I received the luncheon invitation from the Office of Intercultural Services, I thought I was going to be mentioned, or maybe given a gift.  When the ceremony got started, I thought, “Oh, wow.”  When I realized that only one recipient was named from each category—organization, student, staff, and faculty—I thought, “Surely not.”  First they announced the organization winner, then the student winner, then me.  I was in shock.  I really was not expecting that.  My husband and daughter were very proud.

CIO  What about your collection is most meaningful to you?
LB  Oh, the whole collection—and that it took me over 20 years to collect everything.

CIO  Are you still adding to it?
LB  I’m always interested in new pieces, and what they mean to the African culture.  These things should be expressed and displayed.

CIO  Cultural heritage is obviously very important to you.  What would you like to tell our readers about that?
LB  I don’t even know how to put this.  We may be different colors, but we all share a history.  We do.  You have a history, I have a history, we all have a history.  We’re all looking for the same thing.  We all want to know our past.

CIO  How does it feel to be recognized as a Pioneer for Diversity?
LB  Awesome—in capital letters.  Awesome.  I still can’t believe it.  To be recognized like that—it’s an awesome feeling.  You never know how what you do affects other people.  I think it’s the same with whatever you do.

CIO  Have you ever been to Africa, or would you like to go?
LB  Not really.  I’m afraid of bugs.

~Sandy Cochran

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