By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA, and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
This month we celebrate artists of both the visual and written word who inspire us and sustain us. Their works remind us of the beauty of the earth, the celebration of life itself and perhaps, most importantly, the possibilities we all contain to sustain each other through times of challenge. This week, we provide our takes on a book by Ashley Bryan.
MARILYN: The first time I heard Ashley Bryan tell a story I was enthralled. He becomes the characters in the stories he retells. His oral retellings are flavored with a cadence and rhythm that pulls the listeners right into his stories, many of which are retellings of African folktales. You can listen to Bryan sharing stories on the website Reading Rockets. His books engage the reader with dynamic stories featuring colorful, vibrant art that captures the listener’s or reader’s attention. He has received many awards for his art as well as his books. Visit the Ashley Bryan Center to view a timeline of his life and a list of his accomplishments.
I thought I would start our conversation about Infinite Hope, an autobiography by Bryan, with this short introduction to Bryan’s work because, in hearing him speak at many conferences and reading all his books, I have never heard a hint of the experiences chronicled in this biography of mainly his service in the U.S. Army during World War II. Now 97, Bryan has finally told the stories of those years. He writes, “Only my family and close friends even knew I served in World War II” (p.84). During those years he kept a sketch pad in his gas mask and drew on every possible occasion. Then he locked those pictures away and only brought them out recently. He writes, “Fifty years ago, those paintings would have been dark grays and blacks. But in really looking at those sketches now, I saw a beauty there–the beauty of the shared human experience. And I was able to face these sketches, face these memories and emotions and turn them into the special world created by the men” (p. 94).
Bryan’s autobiography is enriched by those paintings and sketches he finally unlocked. The letters home recounting his experiences along with other historical documents, photographs, maps and artifacts from the war enrich his narrative.
His unit started their overseas journey in Scotland, going on to the French coast, being part of D-Day and then on to other parts of France. In telling his story, Bryan describes the segregation and daily mistreatment suffered by Black soldiers during the war. When his battalion was ready to invade Omaha Beach, the first thing needed to do was to clear the beach of thousands of land mines. “This extremely dangerous task was left primarily to the Black quartermaster companies… Black soldiers were ordered to use their mess forks to probe sand for anti-personnel bombs. Many Black lives were lost when mines exploded as they were being cleared…” (p.50). In another part of his story, Bryan tells how “The German POWs were being given more respect than the Black Soldiers who had just fought for Europe’s freedom” (n.p.). The abuse suffered by the Black Soldiers during the war and after is a significant part of Bryan’s story. It is a story that is seldom told and important in understanding how the returning soldiers later contributed to the civil rights movement. Bryan writes, “Part of the impetus and inspiration for the civil rights movement came from these soldiers, who began to stand up and inspire others to join them in their fight against unjust treatment” (p. 87).
The last part of his autobiography is not as grim. We learn about his further education as an artist and the sustaining beauty he found in his surroundings on Little Cranberry Island, his home in Maine. “There was beauty to be joyfully capture. Beauty to sustain me” (n.p.). Finally, with this ending of the book we discover the peace mentioned in his title of the book that enabled Bryan to finally tell the story of his World War II experiences.
Bryan’s story is an inspiration to me. It is significant that the achievements in his long life centered on joy, beauty, and art as well as preserving stories and songs from Africa together with stories and songs from the African American slave experiences. Today, we would call the pain that followed Bryan after the war, PTSD. How he surmounted those experiences through education and art is remarkable and makes his achievements all the more impressive. What stood out to you about Bryan in reading this book, Holly? Since I chose to write about it I hope you too found it significant.
HOLLY: I have to admit, I was shocked by some of the experiences I read in the book, Marilyn. This autobiography is centered around WWII, and Bryan’s treatment in Scotland by his military superiors was incredible. I know it was the 1940s, but to go out of your way to limit a Black soldier’s access to an environment that allowed him to feel like an equal is shocking. There were other incidents, but this stood out because the Scottish people didn’t embrace that racism. The whole idea that Black men were drafted and then resented for being in the military seems ironic, but then I remember U.S. racism. Why would I expect anything different, especially at that time period? I love the frankness and, in many ways, the naivete Bryan also brings to this memoir. He looks back and is surprised by his own audacity about asking to go to art school in Glasgow–fantastic place, by the way–and his joy in the friendships with the children in Boston. His work deserves the attention it has been given.
MARILYN: Bryan’s story has received several awards. First the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award. Then an award at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2020 as a Nonfiction book with a special mention.
I have a story about Bryan that illustrates his humanity and kindness. One of my master’s students decided to do an in-depth investigation of his life and his art. After she completed her project she went to Maine to visit her family. One day she realized that she was close to the ferry that went to Bryan’s home. She took the ferry over to his island and went to his home and studio. There he welcomed her and spent some time showing her around his studio. She was thrilled. I will let her know about this new book. I can imagine her joy on discovering it.
Finally, reading this book enlarges my appreciation of an artist, poet and storyteller I have long admired. The first time I heard Bryan speak was at an American Booksellers Convention in Los Angeles many years ago, in the 1980s. At that conference he appeared with Jane Yolen to advocate for more books to be published for children by non-white authors and illustrators. Finally, we are seeing more books for children that reflect the experiences of the variety of children in our schools. Bryan is a pioneer in bringing that about. Another reason to honor him.
HOLLY: I admire Bryan as a man, one who experienced war, cruelty and bias, but he overcame it to create work that we can all love. The last part of his book is like a reprieve. In spite of experiences that wounded his soul, he was able to rise from it to find, as you say, Marilyn, kindness and humanity. I also like the idea of peace. There is a lot to say about that in this text as well. Yes, the peace of WWII, but also of a man who made peace within himself in respect to his life, those who would hold him down, and then to do what he was made to do: create! It is an accomplishment and a centered, well-lived life that inspires me to do better in respect to my own dreams. Our next book is about another inspirational person, Pura Belpré, who also gave those around her—and the world—something to celebrate.
Title: Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace
Author: Ashley Bryan
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
PubDate: October 15, 2019
Throughout May 2020, Marilyn and Holly give their takes on books that feature art and artists who inspire and sustain us. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!