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In Memory of Ashley Bryan

Over a month ago on February 4, 2022, I was saddened to learn that artist, illustrator and storyteller, Ashley Bryan, died at the age of 98. Maine proudly considered Bryan as one of their own since he had lived on Isleboro for many, many years. The news prompted me to go to the library and take out as many of his books as possible to reread and enjoy. One of the aspects of his books, art, and illustrations that I admire most was his versatility. He used so many different styles and mediums in his work from painting to cut paper collages to puppetry. I even found a new book that I hadn’t read which will be featured in this blog that included his sketches. Ashley Bryan’s book and the other two included here were meant to be part of a Black History Month feature that is now sadly late, but certainly not “out-of-date”.

Children’s Book: When I was reading the tributes to Ashley Bryan and watching some old video interviews, I discovered the fact that Bryan had written an autobiography of his time as a soldier in Europe during World War II which was published in 2019. Thankfully, my library had a copy of it, entitled Infinite Hope. With the target audience being middle school students, the book is a wonderful collection of Bryan’s wartime sketches, photographs, and letters, all organized around his current recollections. While his family had saved the sketches for years, the artist admitted that it took a very long time for him to fully revisit these experiences. Besides the horror of war, “I felt like crying when I thought of war and of boys and girls and babies crawling crawling through the real thing” (letter of June 26, 1943), Bryan also described the segregation and unfair treatment of black soldiers in the United States military. He realized that segregation of Blacks in the U. S. was similar to the Nazi agenda, and that German POWs were often shown more respect than the Black soldiers. He credited art as one of the factors that got him through the war: “I had no idea at the time that my life’s profession would be what would help me survive the brutality of what was to come during World War II” (7). My favorite part of the book was the time he spent in Boston, in which he made friends with local children over art and storytelling. If you have a chance, do read this or any of Ashley Bryan’s wonderful books.

Nonfiction: It was not that long ago that I was reading through a transcribed copy of the pre-Civil War diaries of the Talbot sisters of Freeport, Maine. There was a brief reference to a “mulatto” abolitionist who had addressed an audience at the South Freeport meeting house. I decided it was time to reread the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, who had also visited Maine, giving lectures. Simply put, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is a very powerful book. How can one not be affected by such statements as “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I would have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed” (46), or “I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, . . . Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could ever befall me. For, of the all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst” (72). Also, despite being first published in 1845, it remains a very readable account. If you missed being assigned this in school, do go pick it up. In light of current events, it remains relevant today. “Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother” (89).

Fiction: Technically, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, may not fit with the other book selections as it is not about African-Americans. However, I really admire the fictional main character, Mma Ramotswe, whose experiences and approach to life are so different from my own. Mma Ramotswe is a “traditionally built” woman with an old-fashioned mindset from Botswana, Africa. After suffering the breakup of her marriage and the death of her beloved daddy, Precious Ramotswe decides to set up the only detective agency in Botswana run by a woman. While human vice is universal, the way in which it manifests itself in this book is specific to Africa and Botswana, such as the case of a man who while waiting to be baptized is taken by a crocodile. Mma Ramotswe is clever and full of common sense, but is far from perfect, which only makes her more likable as she perseveres through every setback. Entertaining and thought-provoking from cover to cover, this volume is the first in a mystery series that now includes 23 books.

Tea: Africa, and Kenya in particular, grows good quality tea. Recently, I have been drinking Kenyan tea from Ajiri. Ajiri teas have the most beautiful packaging. However, I would like to highlight rooibos tea. On the first page of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, there is a list of the agency’s assets which include “a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe . . . brewed redbush tea. And three mugs - one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need?” Redbush tea, otherwise known as rooibos tea, is native to Africa, and I first sought it out as a result of reading this book. It brews to a lovely red color, and despite being herbal and caffeine free, is bold enough to take milk (or cream) which is how Mma Ramotswe herself drinks it. It is delicious “plain” on its own, but you can find many, many flavored rooibos teas. Two of my favorites are the blueberry hibiscus from Rishi Tea and a citrus and cranberry blend called Autumn from Jacqueline’s Teas.


Artwork credited to Aurora Draws - contact for more details

All photographs by the author

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