This Black History Month we honor the work of Ashley Bryan, who used his rich, colorful art to illuminate African and African American culture and bring new life to poetry, folk tales and spirituals in some 50 books for children. He passed away this month at the age of 98, leaving behind a brilliant legacy as an artist, teacher, poet and memoirist. A professor emeritus of art at Dartmouth, he was the receipient of 11 honorary degrees as well as dozens of literary honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award for Lifetime Achievement and the New York Public Library’s Library Lions award.
One of our favorites among his many books is Beautiful Blackbird, a retelling of a folk tale from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia that tells how birds got their markings. In the story, birds of different colors come together to decide which of them is the most beautiful. The honor goes to Blackbird, whose iridescent feathers gleam with all colors. The other birds want some black, too, and Blackbird, like a painter, decorates each of them with a black feather, giving them black stripes and dots, while reminding them that real beauty comes from within: “We’ll see the difference a touch of black can make. Just remember, whatever I do, I’ll be me and you’ll be you.” As Bryan explained, “In most books the color black is not regarded as beautiful. With that book, I wanted to open up black as a way of making beautiful art.”
To give children a feeling for the vibrant oral storytelling traditions behind African folktales, Bryan animated the story of Blackbird with bursts of rhyme and meter, sound effects, songs, even dances like the Beak and Wing and the Show Claws Slide. Beautiful Blackbird is also a quiet homage to Bryan’s parents: to his father, a printer of greeting cards, who filled the family’s apartment in the Bronx with flocks of songbirds, and to his mother, a dressmaker, whose fabric scissors he kept to make his collages and always included in illustrations for the endpapers of his books.
Ashley Bryan’s astonishingly prolific career as a creator of children’s books began after his retirement from Dartmouth at age 65, when he moved to a tiny island in Maine. Always full of life and inspiration, Bryan published seven books in his 90s, including two of his most ambitious works for young audiences: the Newbery Honor-winning Freedom Over Me, which imagines the inner lives and dreams of 11 enslaved people whose names he found on an 1828 estate appraisal, and Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace, a memoir of his war experiences. Bryan loved reading poetry aloud for audiences, and completed three collections of poetry for children. For the picture book Sail Away, he chose 15 poems by Langston Hughes on the subject of water and framed them with beautiful, Matisse-like cutoutsof rolling waves, cloud drifts, beams of sunlight and flowing mermaid hair. The preliminary drawings and collages for Sail Away were acquired by the Morgan Library, which will exhibit them—along with the striking puppets Bryan made from sea glass, shells and other found materials—this October in New York. The exhibition will celebrate both artists and the impact that working on ships had on their imagination. Indeed, the last lines of Langston Hughes’ autobiography seem like a fitting description of Bryan’s long career: “Literature is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pulled.”
In all of Ashley Bryan’s work, a spirit of optimism shines through. In all the best ways, he tried to stay like a child in his approach to life, open to experience, wonder and friendship. He seemed to wake up every day inspired to create and celebrate art, to show that art can be more than something you do—it can be part of how you live. “I hope that through my work, children will see what is beautiful in them and explore art,” he said. “Making art is one of the most adventurous experiences you can have. So always make art, always.”