Fifty years ago, Ashley Bryan published the first children’s book written and illustrated by an African-American.
In June, he’ll receive the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. And Alazar Press has published new editions of “Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals Volume 1” and “I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals Volume 2,” two books of spirituals Bryan created in the 1960s when he discovered no spiritual song books existed.
“I knew children sang the songs,” he said in a phone interview, “and I wanted to do a book with simple musical notations so that they could easily play on any melodic instrument.” Bryan cut the notes by hand and illustrated each song with a detailed linocut print. These strong, lively prints capture the sense of Biblical scenes infused with the haunting sadness of the music, also called “sorrow songs.”
Bryan said he strives to give his “best because only the very best is good enough for children.” Centerfolds of both books show children of all nationalities holding hands.
“I wanted to show the message of spirituals: children of all colors walking together,” he said. “I want them to know all people have obstacles. The slaves worked from the dark of the morning to the dark of night, were given poor food, raggedy clothes, no shoes, and still they could create. It gives us courage to face challenges. I tell the children, ‘You can’t go from second to third grade, third to fourth, fourth to fifth grades without overcoming obstacles.’”
Bryan said people love the melodies and sing them but often have no idea that they come “from a people for whom it was a crime to read or write and who yet found a voice to express their situations and sang to represent their hope.”
“There isn’t a person who can’t relate to ‘nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’ or ‘sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’ The feelings are universal, and even people who don’t know the English language have tears come to their eyes because of the emotions in the melodic line,” he said.
Bryan struggled to select just 40 spirituals from more than 1,000 collected since the Civil War. He chose many he’d known since childhood. In their 1930s Bronx tenement, his mother sang all day, and Depression-era schools were filled with the arts. Students listened to classical music, sang and recited poetry. At first Bryan was terrified of reciting, “but I discovered that my love of the poem meant far more to me than my fear and embarrassment. I gave everything to bring the poem alive.”
Bryan uses poetic devices throughout his retellings – chants, and call and response allow readers to hear the storyteller’s voice. Families attending N.C. Museum of Art’s Family Festival can see Bryan perform and view a traveling show of his work, “Rhythms of the Heart: The Illustrations of Ashley Bryan.”