The artist and author Ashley Bryan, 96, rose from his chair, slowly, and looked out at a few hundred fans and archivists gathered to welcome him on Thursday evening.
Conversation at the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center ceased. And then Bryan’s booming voice, hardly muffled by age, filled the room with words he’d spoken many times before, the poem My People by Langston Hughes:
“The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people.”
His audience, hardly daunted, responded: “The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people.”
The famous verse became a biblio-call-and-response: the tall artist, with his curls of gray hair, keeping a beat with his long, thin fingers, eyes closed, to the end; the audience of archivists, students, family, and friends carried along in the moment.
“Beautiful, also, is the sun. / Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people,” Bryan said, keeping the beat. And the response, the same . . .