At first glance, the auction notice was similar to any of the others that arrive monthly at Ashley Bryan’s home on Little Cranberry Island. It advertised an estate auction on the mainland and included many of the usual things associated with old Maine estates: dishware, linens, tools, toys and various domestic objects.
Also available were “Civil War documents and slave-related materials.”
That got Bryan’s attention. The artist and children’s book author and illustrator, who enjoys scouring auction notices for rare finds, recognized this was a very unusual sale indeed and made arrangements to attend the auction in Northeast Harbor. When he arrived, he was the only black man among a small crowd of bidders. He wasn’t surprised at being the only African-American in the group – he’s accustomed to that in Maine – but he was shocked there weren’t more people there to bid.
“If this sale had taken place in New York, Chicago or Boston, all the museums and universities would have been there, bidding for these documents,” Bryan said. “They’re very rare and highly sought-after.”
But no one bid against Bryan that day, and when the sale closed, he carried home with him to Little Cranberry Island the names and sale prices of 11 slaves, sold at auction in 1828.
There in his island home, safe among the spruce and granite, Bryan brought them to life and made their dreams come true.
He tells their stories in a new children’s book, “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life.” Released this month by the Simon & Schuster imprint Atheneum, the book was among six named last week as a finalist for a Kirkus Prize in children’s literature. The winner, announced in November, gets $50,000.
Bryan has written more than 50 children’s books, many dealing with African-American spirituals and traditions. He’s won numerous honors, including multiple Coretta Scott King awards and a Lupine Award from the Maine Library Association. A New Yorker, he came to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the late 1940s. He has lived year-round in Isleford on Little Cranberry Island since retiring from Dartmouth College in the 1980s.
A storyteller, he is best known for his books and paintings and also makes puppets and stained-glass windows from the driftwood and seaglass that he collects on the island. The Ashley Bryan Center, established in 2013 to promote his work and legacy, is distributing 5,000 copies of his most popular book, “Beautiful Blackbird,” to Maine schoolchildren, through the First Book project. Maine schools can receive up to 25 copies of the book, which is based on African folklore and teaches students self-esteem.
Bryan also is the subject of a new documentary, “I Know a Man … Ashley Bryan,” by Maine filmmaker Richard Kane. The movie aired last week at the Camden International Film Festival and is making the rounds at Maine theaters.
Bryan labored over “Freedom Over Me” for more than a decade. The auction occurred a dozen or so years ago, and he has lived with the presence of these people as he shaped them and gave them histories.
The book is entirely fiction. Bryan imagines everything, other than the names and sale prices of the slaves.
That information he took directly from one of 20 documents he purchased that day in Northeast Harbor, a bill of sale from 1828, “Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate.”
On a brown, stained piece of paper, someone with neat handwriting has taken great care to put a price on a human life. Worn at the creases, the brittle paper lists the names, genders and prices of 11 slaves.
“One Negro woman named Peggy – 150.00”
“One boy named Stephan – 300.00”
“One woman Mulvina – 150.00”
“One girl Jane – 300.00”
And so on.
It also lists other commodities purchased that day: cattle, hogs and cotton.
Bryan knows nothing about the origin of the documents. They were part of a sale that included 20 estates, and they could have ended up in Maine any number of ways. There were slaves in Maine, but more likely these documents came from the homes of Southern “rusticators,” who spent summers on the coast of Maine.
Bryan gave each person a birth name – Mariama, Adero – and asked each to speak to him. “Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your history? What do you like to do? What are you good at? What are your dreams in life if you are not a slave?”
As he imagined their responses, he began painting their portraits. He based his portraits on family and friends, which brought them closer to him and made them more real and lifelike.
“I could hear their voices as they opened up their lives to me,” he said.
In “Freedom Over Me,” Bryan tells their stories in verse, each story a poem, each poem a life. There is Peggy, 48, a cook who, because of her skills, has the privilege of working in the big house. And John, 16, a carpenter, messenger and artist.
Each story gets two pages in the book. On one, Bryan shows the person in a muted, serious pose as a slave, a portrait painted on top of the document that details the slave’s value at sale with his or her name, age and skill: Cook, seamstress, carpenter.
Bryan then imagines that person in full color, full of joy and life, using their skills to make dreams come true.
The subject of slavery and children’s books has difficult recent history. Earlier this year, Scholastic Press was criticized for “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” because of its depiction of “happy” slaves making a cake for President George Washington on his birthday. The portrayal put the author and illustrator in hot water, and the publisher pulled the book, citing the “false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves” created by the book.
Caitlyn Dlouhy, Bryan’s editor at Atheneum, said she knew that Bryan would handle the topic of slavery with sensitivity and respect. “If Ashley Bryan can’t write about this subject, then nobody can,” Dlouhy said. “With the care and sensitivity and dignity that he gives to everyone, Ashley is the person who can come at this in the purest way.”
Dlouhy said Byran’s use of a factual record of the sale to imagine the full lives of the slaves if they were free was “a brilliant approach.”
“By the time he finished explaining to me the approach he wanted to take, I was in tears,” she said. “I was in tears. It was so moving and came from such a deep place in his heart.”
The book, she said, is appropriate for anyone older than 5 or 6, including adults. Bryan agrees. We cannot protect children from history, he said, trusting that adults who are present in the lives of the children who read this book will explain slavery in context with other horrors of the world.
Donna B. Isaacs, an island friend and Ashley Bryan Center board member, said this book challenged Bryan as no other. The subject was emotionally difficult, and the story wasn’t always obvious. At one point, she urged him to stop. “It’s not worth it,” she said.
He told her that other writers have written children’s books about the Holocaust “and all kinds of other atrocities.”
“I can do this,” he told her. “This is who I am. This is what I do.”
He kept working and eventually found a rhythm to his story and a way forward.
The book was difficult, emotionally and physically, he said. What else could a book about slavery be, if not difficult?
As he wrote this book, more than ever, Bryan understood what his life might have been like had he been born during slavery.
“I thought of myself, a black man, reading, writing and painting freely,” he said. “Had I been born under slavery, it would have been a crime to read or write. A slave caught in these acts would be haven been beaten or had his hands removed by an ax.”
“I was often caught up in these thoughts. Through tears, I would persist in presenting these slaves as human beings. And then I would go out in the garden and find release painting hollyhocks and dahlias.”