Ashley Bryan: Brave for Life

by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

As we have talked about doing this col­umn we have real­ized that we can only call this an intro­duc­tion to the work of Ash­ley Bryan. His life has been so full of mak­ing children’s books and there are so many won­der­ful children’s books that we can only call out a few — a few entice­ments, and encour­age you to take your­self on a won­der­ful jour­ney into Ash­ley Bryan’s world.

Infinite HopeInfi­nite Hope is an unfor­get­table book. It con­tains sev­er­al strands of infor­ma­tion: Ash­ley Bryan’s draw­ings and paint­ings done from those draw­ings from his time as a sol­dier, draft­ed into World War II; his let­ters to Eva; pho­tographs as back­ground infor­ma­tion, illus­trat­ing places he encoun­tered or was sta­tioned; text writ­ten recent­ly rec­ol­lect­ing Bryan’s wartime expe­ri­ences. These strands give read­ers a pow­er­ful and tex­tured sense of Bryan’s wartime expe­ri­ence. He dis­pas­sion­ate­ly describes the many instances of racism the about 20 mem­bers of the 502 Bat­tal­ion encoun­tered: while sta­tioned in Bel­gium they quick­ly made friends with the Bel­gians, were invit­ed into their homes and shared good times. To put an end to this social­iz­ing the white offi­cers pro­hib­it­ed the Black sol­diers from leav­ing the base on week­ends, though no such pro­hi­bi­tion was laid on the whites; the Black offi­cers were not allowed in the officer’s facil­i­ties or clubs; on Oma­ha Beach dur­ing the D‑Day land­ing, the bod­ies of Black sol­diers were quick­ly removed from the beach so they would not show up on news­casts; Ger­man pris­on­ers of war (cap­tured ene­my sol­diers!) were allowed to sit in the front of bus­es and social­ize with whites; Blacks had to sit in the back; Blacks were the last to be sent home and could only be on board a ship if there were no whites to take those spots. One of the most chill­ing pic­tures is Black sol­diers detailed to clear as-yet-unex­plod­ed mines, dur­ing which, Bryan tells us, many Black lives were lost.

illustration from Infinite Hope by Ashley Bryan
two-page spread from Infi­nite Hope: A Black Artist’s Jour­ney from World War II & France by Ash­ley Bryan,
pub­lished by Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books / Simon & Schus­ter, 2020

The con­stant thud and pelt of racism is cer­tain­ly a part of this book. But an even stronger part is Bryan’s sur­vival strat­e­gy — his pas­sion for draw­ing. While sta­tioned in Boston, before being sent to Europe, he drew with the chil­dren in the neigh­bor­hood. He drew while oper­at­ing a winch. “In my knap­sack, in my gas mask, I kept paper, pens, and pen­cils. I would draw when­ev­er there was free time, inter­vals in work. I refused to sleep. I had to draw. It was the only way to keep my human­i­ty. My sketch­es weren’t only to record the day’s hap­pen­ings, but also to lev­el out the day, the expe­ri­ences of the day, to find the human­i­ty — that moment of grace when you trans­form expe­ri­ences into some­thing mean­ing­ful, some­thing cre­ative amidst the dev­as­ta­tion around you, the ugli­ness of war….Thank good­ness I nev­er need­ed to use my gas mask — if I had had to pull it over my head in a hur­ry, a rain of paper and pen­cils would have tum­bled down.” Art helped him survive.

Com­ing home, he put away his wartime sketch­es rather than paint­ing from them as he had when serv­ing in the army but con­tin­ued with his art. “What I paint­ed most steadi­ly for the next sev­er­al decades,” he writes, “were the flow­ers that bright­ened the gar­dens on Lit­tle Cran­ber­ry Island, my home.” Fifty years after the war, he was asked to do paint­ings based on those wartime sketch­es. Bryan writes that had he paint­ed from the draw­ings imme­di­ate­ly after the war, he would have paint­ed in black, grays, dark col­ors. Years lat­er, he saw the way the sol­diers had cre­at­ed their own world to pro­tect them­selves from “all sorts of war” includ­ing racism and seg­re­ga­tion even as they were fight­ing for free­dom. “I can nev­er give them more than they gave me,” he writes, “so I would paint them in full col­or, filled with the vibran­cy and life I have put into my gar­den paintings.”

On page 19 of this mem­oir we read a note by him, “GOD, make me brave for life.” It is fair to say that God did just that. Ash­ley Bryan is brave in encoun­ter­ing life in all its injus­tice and com­pli­ca­tion and trans­form­ing what he encoun­ters into art. He is pas­sion­ate about his art and has been for all his life. He has illus­trat­ed his own books as well as the books of oth­ers. The wood­cuts he cre­at­ed for Lorenz Graham’s How God Fix Jon­ah are so full of ener­gy and emo­tion that it is tempt­ing to “read” the book and not even look at the words. (The words are well worth read­ing, though, for the voice and musi­cal­i­ty of the West African idiom with which Gra­ham retold Bib­li­cal stories.)

Freedom Over MeFree­dom Over Me is Ash­ley Bryan’s recon­struc­tion of the lives of eleven peo­ple whose names he found in a col­lec­tion of slave-relat­ed doc­u­ments. “Eleven slaves are list­ed for sale with the cows, hogs, cot­ton; only the names and prices of the slaves are not­ed (no age is indicated)….My art and writ­ing in this sto­ry aim to bring the slaves alive as human beings.” And so he does, he invents their dreams, their loss­es. Peg­gy is the cook, brought from Africa, who feels close to the moth­er she was sep­a­rat­ed from on the auc­tion block, when she steams roots and herbs. And Peggy’s strong, unflinch­ing face looks carved from African wood. Stephen, a car­pen­ter, who loves Jane, a seam­stress, and build a spe­cial sewing shed for her. Jane: “The praise I receive, /I offer as a tribute/to my ancestors.”

illustration from Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan
two-page spread from Free­dom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams by Ash­ley Bryan,
pub­lished by Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books / Simon & Schus­ter, 2016

Read­ing this book makes one weep, both for the sto­ries and also the dreams of peo­ple bru­tal­ly enslaved, no mat­ter how “kind” their mas­ters and mis­tress­es might be. As they tell their sto­ries, they also tell their dreams of remem­bered fam­i­ly and life in Africa as well as their yearn­ings to be free. Six­teen-year-old John, being trained as a car­pen­ter, loves draw­ing and draws in the mud with sticks as well as the used paper giv­en him by Stephen and Jane, two enslaved peo­ple who look on John as their son. (In Infi­nite Hope, Bryan, des­per­ate for paper to draw on in the after­math of the war, resorts to using the flat squares of brown toi­let paper the sol­diers had been issued.)

This mov­ing book makes clear what was lost, what was con­tained in the Appraise­ment list of names and dol­lars Bryan includes at the back of the book. Bryan hon­ors these lives, imag­ined, remem­bered, dreamed.

Beautiful BlackbirdBeau­ti­ful Black­bird is a beau­ti­ful book. The cut-paper art­work in vivid sol­id col­ors shows the birds of Africa a long time ago “in their clean, clear col­ors from head to tail.” Only Black­bird was black all over. When Ring­dove asks all the birds who is the most beau­ti­ful of them all, the birds all agree that Black­bird is the most beau­ti­ful one.

When Ring­dove asks for Black­bird to share some of his black, Black­bird replies, “col­or on the out­side is not what’s on the inside,” but promis­es to share his black col­or with the oth­er birds. Paint­ing them with dots and arcs and stripes Black­bird uses all of his black­en­ing on every bird. When all the birds have been dec­o­rat­ed, they gath­er round black­bird and sing,

Our col­ors sport a brand-new look,
A touch of black was all it took.
Oh beau­ti­ful black, uh-huh, uh-huh
Black is beau­ti­ful, UH-HUH!”

Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-PumBeau­ti­ful Black­bird feels like a clas­sic work of children’s lit­er­a­ture. And so does Beat the Sto­ry-Drum, Pum-Pum. The title is no acci­dent — rhythm is a part of every page of this book. Here’s an ear­ly part of the first sto­ry: ”Hen strut two steps, pecked at a bug. Frog bopped three hops, flicked his tongue at a fly. Strut two steps, peck at a bug. Bom three hops, flick at a fly. Hen flapped her wings and spun around. Frog slapped his legs and tapped the ground.” That rhythm is just so much fun to read. We know when there’s a hen involved there’s often work to be done — and the oth­er crea­tures don’t want to do it. So we know the shape of this sto­ry. Bryan wants us to have some fun along the way. “Why the Bush Cow and Ele­phant Are Bad Friends” fea­tures two huge char­ac­ters who can­not resist the urge to fight to prove which one is strongest. No fight ever proves any­thing. And per­haps the main char­ac­ter of the sto­ry is the com­ic mon­key who talks in scat rhythms and, when he goes to tell the Head Chief the two ene­mies are fight­ing again for­gets his mes­sage and eats bananas.

The sto­ries are told with a “well, this hap­pened” atti­tude. The char­ac­ters bring about their own fates — the frog fails to see the hawk, the frog and snake — best friends for one day — learn to be sus­pi­cious of each oth­er and nev­er play togeth­er again but sit alone in the sun. The man who counts spoon­fuls can’t keep a wife because he can’t resist count­ing the spoon­fuls of food she doles out of the pot. And his wives won’t live with that. He ends up alone, count­ing grass.

Rhythm makes a big return in the last sto­ry — Ralu­vhim­ba, God of the Bavan­da, cre­at­ed the ani­mals (with­out tails) when he fell asleep in Cave Luvhim­bi. But he made a mis­take (“…and man hadn’t even been cre­at­ed yet”) he cre­at­ed flies. The ani­mals demand tails to flick away the flies. Ralu­vhim­ba says, “Tell the ani­mals I’ll come down to Mount Tsha-wa-din­da tomor­row and make tails for all of them.” Rab­bit is lazy and doesn’t go so ends up with a lit­tle fluff of a tail. But real­ly, this sto­ry is about sound about the fun of these repeat­ed syl­la­bles. And if we remem­ber to get into line when the tails are being giv­en out, so much the bet­ter. In the mean­time here’s to Ralu­vhim­ba, God of the Bavan­da. Let’s hope we can gath­er with him on Mount Tsh-wa-din­da and cel­e­brate tales and tails and the beau­ty of sound and creation.

Ashley Bryan's ABCs of African American PoetryIn look­ing through Bryan’s pub­lished works we dis­cov­ered one we didn’t know, Ash­ley Bryan’s ABC of African Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Rather than hav­ing each let­ter begin a poet’s name Bryan includes lines from poems that began with or includ­ed that let­ter. So the let­ter A show­cas­es lines from James Wel­don Johnson:

And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

We were delight­ed to find words by many of our favorite writ­ers in the book — Lucille Clifton, Eloise Green­field, Langston Hugh­es — along with new-to-us poets as well.

What a gor­geous and won­der­ful way to learn more about Black poets.

We could go on and on about the many books Ash­ley Bryan has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed, and we hope you will go on read­ing Bryan’s books and lis­ten­ing to him read and talk about his work in the links we’ve included.

Beau­ti­ful books by Ash­ley Bryan. UH-HUH!

For a treat, lis­ten to Bryan read Beau­ti­ful Black­bird.

And hear him giv­ing voice to the won­der­ful rhythms in “Hen and Frog.”

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David LaRochelle
3 years ago

I just request­ed INFINITE HOPE from my library. Thank you for the recommendation!

Jacqueline Briggs Martin
3 years ago

I hope you love it as much as we do.

3 years ago

LOVELY shout-out to Mr. Bryan’s newest & so fab­u­lous a wrap-up. Appreciations.
Jan Godown Anni­no / Bookseedstudio