Mainewhile: Celebrating the cry of joy that was Ashley Bryan


If you, like me, have ever been lucky enough to spend even a single afternoon on Cranberry Island, then chances are you, like me, have been lucky enough to being invited to Ashley Bryan’s house. Because that’s what Ashley did. He invited you in.

bryan Gabe Souza/ Portland Press Herald Staff

To his work, his mind, his heart, his soul… and also his home. Ashley invited you. And really, when you get down to it, the differences between these things are almost non-existent. If you’ve ever read an Ashley book, you’ve been invited in. If you’ve turned the page, you’ve moved from room to room. If you’ve read his words, you’ve heard his heart beating. Ashley didn’t have compartments, Ashley didn’t work that way.

Ceiling puppets here, stained glass windows there, quilt scraps on this surface, collage on that one. Color everywhere! Creativity everywhere! Everywhere a crazy idea in the making! Ashley’s life was a cry of joy, a laugh out loud, and everything around him reflected that joy 10 thousand times over.

It is also important to understand: the reality of all this joy and love was a choice.

Ashley, who died Feb. 4, was born in the Bronx, like my mother, but a few years before her, and with many opportunities cut off. He was one of six children and showed an early love of art. Segregation and racial prejudice denied him many things. His gifts earned him a place at the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering in New York. The war, however, prevailed.

Ashley was drafted into World War II, where he faced not only the dangers of enemy fire (he was at Omaha Beach on D-Day), but also rampant and violent racism from fellow soldiers. His experiences are turned into inspiration in his book “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace”.

However, it is in his children’s books that he finds his most lyrical voice. Through works such as ‘Turtle Knows Your Name’ and ‘Beautiful Blackbird’ he invited children into a world of love, acceptance, belonging and song.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what you think; write to him at [email protected]

Shley’s amazing life is lovingly documented in the film “I Know a Man…Ashley Bryan,” by Maine filmmaker Richard Kane. I had the honor of hosting the film’s premiere in Maine when I was executive director of a historic theater in Bar Harbor. Ashley attended the opening, and although he was already over 90, he still kicked things off the way he always did, leading the assembled crowd in a rousing, raucous and boisterous recitation of the poem by Langston Hughes, “My People”.

To watch Ashely address a crowd, well, there really was nothing else like it. He brought his whole being. As he spoke, as he moved, as he was, the people around him were transformed. The sturdy, silver-haired citizens laughed, their eyes sparkling. The children recognized a kindred spirit and an ally. Individual personalities melted together, the lines between us blurring until we as people all formed a bold and beautiful collage.

Ashley Bryan was 98 when he passed away peacefully last week. I think he knew how much he was loved, even by people he had never met. For Ashley, I’m going to go out and use all of my self to recite this Langston Hughes poem to the night sky and thank Ashley Bryan for always having us over.

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