Ashley Bryan Saturday afternoon reminded me of something very important that all of us artists must do.
Bryan is author, poet and illustrator of dozens of award-winning books that include African folk tales, collections of spirituals, poems, and works with such luminaries as Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mari Evans, and Walter Dean Myers.
Bryan is in his late eighties. Slender, with crinkly white hair and white moustache, he looks frail, as if he should be speaking to us while sitting in a chair. But for over an hour on Saturday Ashley Bryan was continually moving — standing, chanting, singing, talking, laughing, clapping, inspiring us with words from his picture books, and in a booming voice reciting Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, and extolling us to join him in singing universally known African American spirituals.
Bryan was in Raleigh, NC to celebrate Alazar Press’s re-issuing of his children’s books “Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals Volume 1” and “I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals Volume 2.”
When he first began collecting spirituals and illustrating them in his books, he discovered that children — and adults — often knew the songs but didn’t know their origins.
“They didn’t know that ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ and ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ were created by Black American slaves,” he said. “Those slaves worked from the dark of the morning to the dark of night. How did they have time to think up those songs? No matter how much you suppress people, they’re going to find out who they are and express themselves. These songs have universal feelings. You never know what’s going to help you get over obstacles.”
For those of us who create poems, songs, stories, and books at our desks, bent over our computers and pads of paper, or try to, this wondrous octogenarian’s energy, passion, and commitment to his crafts and his culture are motivators.
He also left me with another message, which apparently makes everything else possible: Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving.