Here’s a book I bought several years ago because of its cover. Those soulful child’s eyes looking at me, how could I resist? Even the rare book cost didn’t deter me. I had to have it.
Simon & Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955. It was created by an African-American power-duo, photographer Ray DeCarava and poet/writer/playwright Langston Hughes. DeCarava (1919 – 2009) was the first African-American photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952). He used the grant money to create a portrait of Harlem via black and white photography. He drew from that collection to create this book.
Hughes (1902 – 1967) rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and became one of the 20th century’s most recognized poets and interpreters of the African-American experience. He connected the book’s photos with a fictional story narrated by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now out of print but sells on the used and rare book market. A high collectible item, it gets expensive, especially if signed by one or both of the authors. That’s unfortunate, to be so out of reach, because the photos and story capture and relate 1950’s Harlem better than a textbook version might attempt, due to the combined, sensuous textures and tones created by these time-honored artists.
On the back cover of the book, Langston Hughes is quoted: “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is [in Harlem]. Maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is.'” In its 98 pages, the book takes us through photos of parents hugging their kids; friends and family laughing and working in their homes; people walking the streets; working mothers riding the subway and kids playing and daydreaming.
Sister Mary Bradley wonders without judgment about her grandson Rodney, who sleeps all day and goes out with the women all night, and she counsels her youngest daughter Melinda not to fret over her husband, a good family man, who some nights doesn’t come home: “Melinda got the idea she can change him. But I tells Melinda, reforming some folks is like trying to boil a pig in a coffeepot — the possibilities just ain’t there — and to leave well enough alone.”
Our narrator tells us she’s “a little sick.” There’s reference to her “going home,” but she stubbornly tells the Lord and everyone else, she’s not ready . “‘I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life — and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose.'” Her confident, grand-mothering voice speaks with love, reverence, joy and purpose from the center of Harlem’s hard, unrelenting everyday life, thanks to her gift of seeing that life through a lens of blessings and hope.