Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Beautiful Blackbird of Joy

In July, I had the privilege of experiencing “Beautiful Blackbird: The Creative Spirit of Ashley Bryan,” which was on exhibit from April 6 through July 21, 2023 at the University of Pennsylvania, where most of Ashley’s archives are housed.  The stunning exhibit’s run at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, was coming to an end and Curator Lynne Farrington wanted to mark its success and celebrate what would have been Ashley’s 100th birthday (July 13th).  She and Sandy Campbell (Ashley’s nephew) invited me and other friends, family, fans, mentees, and those who were just discovering Ashley (an envious place to be) to participate in a poetry event on July 19th. 

Ashley would have delighted in the casual chairs-in-a-circle format.  He loved, wrote and performed poetry his entire life and would have taken great pleasure in the emotion, the energy, the joy that filled the room as stories and poems were shared.  Being in that heartfelt space highlighted how his work and spirit have moved and nurtured so many.

The impact of his art, words, and humanity are immeasurable.  But there is one Ashley statement that, when I first heard it, took my breath way.  It has never stopped overwhelming me, never stopped teaching me how to live in the world. 

My wish is that you benefit from it, too.


           I am essentially un-tragic,
          I am easily distracted from pain,
          I cannot resist happiness.

                    —Ashley Bryan


If you missed the exhibit, Curator Lynne Farrington has created a 164-page catalog, published by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries in conjunction with the exhibition. ISBN 9780990448778.

All of Ashley’s books are wonderful, but if you want to learn more about his life and work, I recommend three autobiographical books:

Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song (Atheneum, 2009)
Ashley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something from Everything (Atheneum, 2014)
Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace (Atheneum, 2019)

Learn more about Ashley Bryan at: