Artist Ashley Bryan found the bills of sale for 11 enslaved people and imagined their lives and dreams.
Painter and poet Ashley Bryan tries to make sense of life through art. He once said in an interview, “It’s part of an aesthetic drive to understand who I am. That is our effort, always. The essence of being human is being understood by others. We paint, we write poetry and we express ourselves out of desire to bring people together in a way that goes beyond who we are as an individual.” So it is no surprise that when Bryan purchased a collection of slavery-related documents, he would set out to develop a story for each of these enslaved people who were not given one.
Among the trove of documents was a bill of sale from an estate, including 11 people for sale. These 11 enslaved people were listed alongside farm animals and material assets. Through free verse poetry and rendered portraits, Bryan strove to give a story to those who were deemed no better than animals, reduced to a name and a price.
I recently had the honor of visiting Ashley Bryan’s exhibit, titled Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan, at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. It’s a collection representing his vast body of work spanning over 50 years of creativity. But being able to see his rendered portraits, where the final illustrations can be viewed in the book Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Light, was emotional to say the least.
I’ve always placed immense weight on who I am and how I make others feel. Although there are so many nuances to being a Black woman in 2017, I have the freedom to at least tell my story. I was able to go to the college of my choice, have a diverse group of friends, travel the world and, most importantly, learn.
If you asked me who I am in this very moment, I would proudly say I’m 22, almost 23, a lover of God, a college-educated Black woman, and I’m passionate about writing. I’ve always enjoyed listening to and telling a good story, after all. Past my shy exterior, people close to me would probably tell you I’m insanely goofy (to the point of cornier than corn). I don’t take myself seriously but can be very serious when the situation calls for it. I’m loyal to a fault and strive to never lie. But most importantly, I hope to be remembered as someone who made others feel special.
In my 22 years of life, and even going forth, every day I have to make the conscious decision to honor those who came before me, because they survived and fought for me to have the chance to write these very words.
To see humanity cruelly stripped from my people up close was sobering. Bryan’s Eleven Slaves was not just a reminder that there is so much beauty that I can craft into my own story and dreams, but it’s also a reminder to others where we came from and how cruel humanity can be — and how resilient.