CRANBERRY ISLES — Ashley Bryan had a gift for surviving the horror of war and the brutality of racism in a segregated army. That gift was his art.
“In my knapsack, in my gas mask I kept paper, pens and pencils,” he writes in his new book, “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace.”
“I would draw whenever there was free time … I had to draw. It was the only way to keep my humanity.”
The world knows Ashley Bryan as an extraordinary, award-winning artist, illustrator and children’s book author. His neighbors on Islesford cherish him as a friend.
Bryan’s U.S. Army draft notice had come in the spring of 1943, during his third year at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. He was assigned to an all-black company of stevedores that, after training stateside and in Scotland, manned cargo ships for the Allied troops storming of the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. In the weeks and months that followed, they continued to ferry supplies from the ships to the troops moving farther into France.
“My own company’s first order of business onshore was to dig ourselves foxholes … over which we were to erect a low tent,” Bryan writes. “It was there that we would sleep and take cover from enemy fire.”
In every spare moment, he continued to draw.
“My sketches weren’t only to record the day’s happenings,” he writes, “but also to level out the day … to find the humanity — that moment of grace when you transform experiences into something meaningful, something creative amidst the devastation around you, the ugliness of war.”
And the ugliness of racism that black soldiers endured.
At the end of the war, Bryan’s company was given the job of guarding German prisoners.
“(They) were being given more respect than the Black soldiers who had just fought for Europe’s freedom,” he writes. “On bus rides to the PX, the German prisoners were permitted to sit up front with the white soldiers and officers, while we Blacks were segregated to the back, just like back home. And once at the PX, we were not even allowed inside.
“We Blacks had risked our lives — thousands had lost their lives — to stop the Nazis’ hatred and agenda of eliminating those people they deemed as lesser, as unworthy. And yet in many respects we were being treated in the same way … Where was our freedom? Our equality?”
Once back home, the black soldiers were subjected to the same humiliating discrimination. Many ended up on the street. But Bryan was among the fortunate ones because he had the talent and tenacity to pursue his passion, which was art.
In the more than seven decades after the end of the war, he rarely spoke about his time as a soldier and he never wrote about it — until now.
In “Infinite Hope,” he tells that story not only as a narrative, but also through sketches he made during the war and paintings he did from those sketches, along with diary entries, wartime photographs and excerpts from letters he sent to a friend back home.
It is a creatively designed and beautifully illustrated book, which Kirkus Reviews has described as having “the intimate feel of a scrapbook.”
“So many unique yet universal aspects of the human experience are touched upon in this lovingly shared memoir: the passion that kept an artist going through the most difficult times …”
The Kirkus review concludes: “Watching Bryan generously transform the bittersweet into beauty is watching the meaning of art.”
“Infinite Hope” was published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division. But young children might find some of it disturbing, such as Bryan’s description of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach: “It was when you saw bodies floating in the water that you truly understood what was happening. The fallen soldiers were buried in temporary mass graves, and it was again the Black quartermaster soldiers who were assigned this grim task.”
“Infinite Hope” is appropriate for readers in the middle school grades and older — and for adults — because it takes a certain level of maturity to truly grasp a central message of the book: “Revealing aspects of the mystery of being human is life’s inexhaustible research,” Bryan write. “Through the adventures of art, we find the meaning of our lives.”
Book inspiring for students
Instead of learning about World War II and the Holocaust through traditional textbooks this fall, students at the Cumberland Academy of Georgia read Ashley Bryan’s new book, “Infinite Hope.”
And on Veterans Day, they had a virtual visit with the author.
Lori Fineman, former French teacher at Mount Desert Island High School is now the lead teacher at Cumberland, a school for special needs students in Atlanta. Earlier this year, she contacted Bryan and told him of her plan to teach her students through the arts and humanities. He responded by sending her a signed collection of his books.
“Art speaks to the senses, and my hope is for students to be able to connect to the material organically and learn the importance of inclusion and uplifting humanity as a whole,” Fineman said.
As for the virtual visit, she said, “What an amazing gift to our students. Mr. Bryan was so engaging and gave the students the ability to connect with what they learn in history and connect to Mr. Bryan’s art. It was a fabulous experience.”