Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown: a postponed collaboration

In 1936, writer Langston Hughes and artist Elmer W. Brown—two blacks, one famous and the other not—wanted to publish a book. Hughes was already an acclaimed figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Brown was a young painter and illustrator who met Hughes in the creative orbit of Karamu House, Cleveland’s famous black theater where Hughes premiered many of his plays.

What Hughes and Brown bought was a children’s picture book called “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book”. Hughes’ fiery verse and Brown’s whimsical illustrations would together tell stories about a hungry parrot, a mournful cow, and other creatures that express in simple verse a range of feelings from unhappiness and remorse to happiness and confidence. Hughes’ stature opened doors for some publishers, and according to letters he wrote to Brown, the feedback he heard was mostly positive. But the book was never published during their lifetime.

Some 90 years after the pair failed to find a publisher, their quirky collaboration is given new life in an exhibit here titled “The Sweet and Sour Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown.” The exhibit is a collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Art and ARTneo, an organization that specializes in northeast Ohio art and operates a gallery — where the exhibit runs through July 24 — in a arts complex on the west side of town.

The 21 poems, letters by Hughes and more than 30 illustrations and watercolors on display revive a largely forgotten artistic partnership between two pioneers of what Sabine Kretzschmar, the show’s project manager, called “children’s literature by Afro-Americans.” Americans, for everyone”.

“The verses are adorable and the expressions in the drawings make me smile in a way that Dr. Seuss makes me smile,” Kretzschmar said.

The show’s lead name is Hughes, a Missouri native who went to high school in Cleveland, where he wrote short stories and poetry.

Michelle H. Martin, the author of “Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books,” said Hughes celebrated “Blackness, childhood, and joy” in his works for children, an audience for which he wrote everything. throughout his career. But he never shied away from “what squalor is,” she added.

“It could be wrapped in beautiful, compelling, recitable language,” Martin said. “But as short as his poems are, they don’t get to the bottom of what it means to live in a racist society.”

The book is said to have paired Hughes’ fervent poem about the pain of subjugation with jovial illustrations of a Brown lion:

A lion in a zoo,
Locked in a cage,
Live a life of
Stifled rage.
A lion in the forest,
Free Roaming,
Is happy as ever
A lion maybe.

Brown, who has corresponded with Hughes for decades, is the one who gets his due on this show. Born in Pittsburgh in 1909, Brown moved to Cleveland at age 20 and worked as a social-realist muralist for the Works Progress Administration, then as a designer at American Greetings, a greeting card company. He died in 1971. Brown’s widow, Anna V. Brown, donated some of her husband’s works – including the illustrations and watercolors in this exhibit – to ARTneo (then the Cleveland Artists Foundation) before his death in 1985.

David C. Hart, associate professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art, said children’s literature in the 1930s was an “obviously racist” field in which depictions of animals were often steeped in stereotypes anti-blacks. Brown aspired through his illustrations to “affirm the lessons that children of all colors need to learn,” Hart said.

Like many children’s books, “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book” is filled with playful yet uplifting tales of pride, gluttony, sadness. In a poem, Hughes explains anger, seen through the eyes of the rattlesnake lady wearing a Brown’s bonnet:

Ms Snake,
If ever bothered,
Will never be
Disturb you –
But Mrs. Snake,
When she’s embarrassed,
Turns into
A flourish!

Kretzschmar said it’s hard to say for sure why the original book wasn’t published. In 1938, Hughes wrote to Brown that a publisher objected to the publication’s expenses. But Kretzschmar also said “one has to wonder if it’s because they were black.”

“I would be surprised if racism didn’t play a role,” she said. “I would also say that a lot of books are not published, although that was a book by Langston Hughes.

If Hughes’ poems sound familiar, that’s because in 1994 Oxford University Press published a revised version of the book after Nancy Toff, Oxford’s children’s books editor, found the unpublished manuscript. at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale. Hughes cut some of the original poems, but revised others and added new ones to make it an introduction to the alphabet, also called “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book”. Instead of Brown’s illustrations, the book featured work by students from the Harlem School of the Arts. (Finished watercolors of Brown’s compositions are in the collection of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.)

Logan Fribley, a 17-year-old from South Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, grew up reading the 1994 book and was surprised to learn that the illustrations he liked weren’t in the original. He is one of eight teenagers who helped organize the exhibition and design a reading room, just steps from the gallery, decorated with oversized colorful flowers and mushrooms inspired by Brown’s illustrations – all part of the exhibition. a program the museum offers for students interested in art and museums.

“When I was a kid, I loved the colors and the imaginative words and the fact that it was a different type of ABC book,” said Fribley, who is homeschooled. “He deals with difficult issues. I appreciated the depth.

Kretzschmar said she hopes the exhibit will give its creators a gift they never received: a book deal.

“I would love for someone to post this in a really crafty way,” she said. “It should be shared with the audience it deserves.”

The Bittersweet Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown

Through July 24 at ARTneo, 1305 West 80th Street, Suite 016, Cleveland, (216) 227-9507;


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