The concept of time does not exist, especially for babies in the womb, but it’s never too early to establish some structure and good habits. Since finishing the first trimester of pregnancy, my husband and I have followed a prenatal routine for our little moon flower that consists of morning yoga, mantras and meditation; music appreciation hour; foreign language, math, history, art and science lessons; and my personal favorite, story time. Of course this routine will be adjusted once she makes her début, but for now, it works. One of her books is Beautiful Blackbird, a gift from my best friend. I have grown to love this story by renowned artist, writer, and humanitarian Ashley Bryan. It’s fun, colorful, and in many ways, a metaphor for our experiences regarding cultural relations.
Ashley Bryan was born and raised in the Bronx, NY in 1923. At the age of seventeen, he entered the only art school who would accept him based on his portfolio, instead of rejecting him because of his ethnicity. He was later drafted out of art school into the segregated and tension-filled U.S. army. He maintained his humanity, and what I would imagine – his sanity, by drawing. After World War II, Bryan studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University, then went to Europe on a scholarship in pursuit to understand why people chose war instead of peace. Bryan returned to America and taught art at several schools and universities, and over time, published more than fifty books, including Beautiful Blackbird in 2003.
Beautiful Blackbird is about tolerance without submission, harmony and patience, and celebrates diversity. It’s easily called Bryan’s “most famous book”, and due to his astonishing illustrations, Beautiful Blackbird won the Corretta Scott King Award in 2004. Since its publishing, the book has been reprinted time and time again in a number of languages, and has become a staple in every classroom and children’s library across the world.
“There is a reason the Ashley Bryan Center chose the Beautiful Blackbird as its emblematic symbol—and it is not just because Ashley is of African descent, or because Blackbird is an artist. Blackbird represents the best qualities of Ashley Bryan’s character that we hope to emulate as an organization. Like Ashley, Blackbird is kind and welcoming to all; he is generous with his knowledge and creativity. In the story, Blackbird brings together community, while he celebrates individuality—emphasizing inclusion and self-worth. Even as Blackbird shares his gifts, he cautions, “Just remember, whatever I do, I’ll be me and you’ll be you.””
His editor Caitlyn Dlouhy wrote : He had discovered a hole in children’s literature. There were no introductory books of African-American spirituals. There were no stories from the African oral tradition. The translations he found were academic. Dust in the throat. … He couldn’t duplicate the oral traditions of Africa, so he set out on a mission to create something for a new audience: beautiful books to be read and shared aloud … Ashley had bridged time and space, bringing past and present together to create a new voice, born of an ancient one.
Bryan has won several lifetime achievement and literary awards, and there are even literary festivals named for him. Although he is humbled by these honors, “it is the joy of creation, the excitement he sees in children’s eyes, that delights him most.”