Monday, August 10, 2020

Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan is a painter, poet and children’s author who lives on Little Cranberry Island in Maine. He was born in 1923 in Harlem, and raised in the Bronx. His first book did not appear until 1962 when he became the first African American to publish a children’s book as both the author and illustrator. 

He has long been a promoter of reading poetry aloud for children. His book Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry (1997) includes poems by such poets as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. He has won the Coretta Scott King Award ten times ― sometimes for illustration, and sometimes both for writing and illustration. Perhaps his best known collection of his own poetry is 1992’s Sing To The Sun. He is also known for illustrated books of African folk tales, and of Black American Spirituals. 
The following poem is one of eleven poetic portraits of slaves, he wrote using original auction and plantation estate documents, that appear in his book, Freedom Over Me (2017). It was selected as a Newbery Honor Book. 

Many years ago 
Mulvina and I worked together 
on a Louisiana plantation. 
Our voices could always be heard 
singing singing singing. 
It was our voices 
that brought us together. 
We sang to strengthen our spirits. 
We cared for each other. 
Luckily, we were sold together 
to the Fairchilds’ estate. 

We had a way with animals. 
We led their cattle 
to green pastures 
and still waters. 
No matter what the work―
herding the cattle, 
tending the garden, 
picking cotton― 
we sang. 

The steady gait of the cattle, 
their contented, quiet munching, 
aroused sentiments of song 
within us. 
We sang low, thoughtful melodies 
to Bible stories we heard 
standing in the back 
of the Big House 
for Sunday church services. 
We remembered 
the stories of suffering and longing, 
of Moses, Joshua, David 
of Jesus and Mary. 
Stories like our own. 

During the heavy laboring 
in the cotton fields, 
caring for the garden, 
planting rows of vegetables 
for the estate, 
the tiring daily chores, 
Mulvina and I sang together quietly: 
“Oh, by and by, 
by and by, 
I’m going to lay down 
this heavy load.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.