Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Infinite Hope: A Black Artists' Journey from World War II to Peace, an Autobiography by Ashley Bryan

Infinite Hope: A Black Artists' Journey from World War II to Peace,
an Autobiography by Ashley Bryan
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2019, 112 pages

I've always been such an admirer of Ashley Bryan's work for young readers, so I was really interested when I heard he had written a book about his World War II experiences. Born and raised in Bronx,  New York, Ashley was a 19-year-old art student at the prestigious art college Cooper Union in Manhattan when, in 1943, he received his draft notice. The United States had already been at war since December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii so he had been expecting to be drafted.

Though he had experienced prejudice growing up, the Army was the first time Ashley had ever experienced overt segregation and it began right at the start of his military career. He was quickly assigned to the 502nd Port Battalion, Company C and made up of only Black soldiers, where he became a winch operator. Stationed in Boston, his job was to load and unload supplies of all kinds on or off ships. In Boston, Ashley makes friends with some of the local kids, drawing with them and sharing cokes.

After a few months, the 502nd was sent to Glasgow, Scotland, where Ashley continued working as a stevedore loading and unloading supply ships. And the Scottish people, Ashley notes, welcomed the Black soldiers warmly and treated them like equals despite the Army's continued attempts to enforce their segregation policy by working the stevedores such long hours, making them too tired to venture out and socialize with the welcoming Scots. However, Ashley's battalion commander, Colonel James Pierce had a real appreciation for the arts, and gave Ashley permission able to attend the Glasgow School of Art. Not only that, but Colonel Pierce also created the 502nd Port Battalion band after noticing the many gifted musicians among the stevedores.

Ashley's time in Glasgow came to an end too quickly for him, and on June 2, 1944, the 502nd Port Battalion found themselves heading for the coast of Normandy and the invasion they had spent so much time preparing for.

Ashley's ship was anchored off the Normandy coast, at Omaha Beach where, beside loading and unloading ships, his battalion was to invade and clear the beach of land mines, a dangerous job give to the Black soldiers, many of whom lost their lives when mines exploded. Then they were ordered to dig foxholes where they would sleep and could take cover from enemy fire, and also to send up huge barrage balloons to make it difficult for the German Luftwaffe to attack for above.

All the while, Ashley carried paper and drawing materials with him, recording all that he witnessed. And yet, all of those drawings were carefully put away for most of Ashley's live, because, like many soldiers, he simply did not want to speak about or be reminded of his wartime experiences: "In a sense, I hid those drawings away just as I hid my experiences from those three years." (pg. 97) And it has taken for Ashley almost a lifetime to be able to finally confront his wartime experiences.

Using spare prose, and told in the first person as though he is speaking directly to you, Ashley allows his words, his illustrations and his letters to tell his story, together with photographs of the time that he's overlaid with sketches. And he manages to give readers an intimate view of what WWII was like for him and other black soldiers, to capture all the horrors of war, and the racism and injustice he and his fellow blacks soldiers were subjected to, always given the lowest, the meanest, often the most dangerous jobs to do, but also he records acts of camaraderie, kindnesses and genuine friendship.

I've gone over this book again and again, captivated by all of the boldly painted illustrations made from his sketches. It is easy to see how art helped him through those terrible years: "What gave me faith and direction was my art. In my knapsack, in my gas mask, I kept paper, pens, and pencils." (pg. 60) These sketches and illustrations are now a treasure trove of information to add to the history of African Americans in this country, and the history of WWII in general.

You can also hear Ashley Bryan speak about his WWII exhibit and his experience as a stevedore during the Battle of Normandy HERE

Pair this book with Courage Has No Color: the True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone, where you will also find some of Ashley Bryan's wartime sketches.

Infinite Hope is an autobiography not to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

1 comment:

  1. I am really excited to read this book, Alex. Thanks for sharing the highlights. You've made me want to read it even more.