Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown: A Collaboration Deferred

In 1936, the author Langston Hughes and the artist Elmer W. Brown — two Black males, one well-known and the opposite not — needed to publish a guide. Hughes was already an acclaimed determine of the Harlem Renaissance. Brown was a youthful painter and illustrator who met Hughes within the inventive orbit of Karamu House, the famend Black theater in Cleveland the place Hughes premiered a number of of his performs.

What Hughes and Brown shopped round was a kids’s image guide referred to as “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book.” Hughes’s spirited verses and Brown’s whimsical illustrations collectively would inform tales a couple of hungry parrot, mournful cow and different creatures that categorical in easy verse a spread of emotions from unhappiness and regret to bliss and confidence. Hughes’s stature opened some publishers’ doorways, and in line with letters he wrote to Brown, the suggestions he heard was principally optimistic. But the guide was by no means printed of their lifetimes.

Some 90 years after the 2 males did not discover a writer, their authentic collaboration will get new life in an exhibition right here referred to as “The Sweet and Sour Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown.” The present is a collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Art and ARTneo, a company that focuses on the artwork of Northeast Ohio and runs a gallery — the place the present runs via July 24 — in an arts complicated on town’s West Side.

The 21 poems, letters from Hughes and over 30 illustrations and watercolors on view revive a largely forgotten inventive partnership between two pioneers of what Sabine Kretzschmar, the present’s undertaking supervisor, referred to as “children’s literature by African Americans, for everybody.”

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

The present’s marquee title is Hughes, a Missouri native who went to high school in Cleveland, the place he wrote quick tales and poetry.

Michelle H. Martin, the writer of “Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books,” mentioned Hughes celebrated “Blackness, childhood and joy” in his works for teenagers, an viewers he wrote for all through his profession. But he by no means shied from “what Black misery is,” she added.

“It might be wrapped in beautiful and compelling and recitable language,” Martin mentioned. “But as short as his poems are, they do not sugarcoat the underbelly of what it means to live in a racist society.”

The guide would have paired Hughes’s fervent poem in regards to the ache of subjugation with Brown’s jocund illustrations of a lion:

A lion in a zoo,
Shut up in a cage,
Lives a lifetime of
Smothered rage.
A lion within the forest,
Roaming free,
Is joyful as ever
A lion may be.

Brown, who corresponded with Hughes for many years, is the one getting his due on this present. Born in Pittsburgh in 1909, Brown moved to Cleveland at 20 and labored as a social-realist muralist for the Works Progress Administration, and later as a designer at American Greetings, a greeting card firm. He died in 1971. Brown’s widow, Anna V. Brown, donated a few of her husband’s works — together with the illustrations and watercolors on this exhibition — to ARTneo (then the Cleveland Artists Foundation) earlier than she died in 1985.

David H. Hart, an affiliate professor of artwork historical past on the Cleveland Institute of Art, mentioned kids’s literature within the Thirties was a “patently racist” area through which depictions of animals have been usually infused with anti-Black stereotypes. Brown aspired via his illustrations to “affirm lessons that children of all colors need to learn,” Hart mentioned.

Like many kids’s books, “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book” is full of playful however cautionary tales about hubris, gluttony, unhappiness. In one poem, Hughes explains anger, as seen via the eyes of Brown’s bonnet-wearing girl rattlesnake:

Mrs. Snake,
If by no means bothered,
Will by no means
Bother you —
But Mrs. Snake,
When she is concerned,
Turns into
A curlicue!

Kretzschmar mentioned it’s arduous to definitively say why the unique guide wasn’t printed. In 1938, Hughes wrote to Brown that one editor objected to the publication’s expense. But Kretzschmar additionally mentioned “one has to ask if it’s because they were Black.”

“I would be surprised if racism didn’t play a role,” she mentioned. “I would also say a lot of books don’t get published, although this was a Langston Hughes book.”

If Hughes’s poems sound acquainted it’s as a result of in 1994, Oxford University Press printed a revised model of the guide after Nancy Toff, the manager editor of Oxford’s kids books, discovered the unpublished manuscript on the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale. Hughes reduce some authentic poems however revised others and added new ones to make it an alphabet primer, additionally referred to as “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book.” Instead of Brown’s illustrations, the guide featured artwork by college students from the Harlem School of the Arts. (Finished watercolors of Brown’s compositions are within the assortment of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.)

Logan Fribley, a 17-year-old from South Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, grew up studying the 1994 guide and was stunned to study that the illustrations he beloved weren’t within the authentic. He’s considered one of eight youngsters who helped curate the exhibition and design a studying room, steps from the gallery, that’s accented with colourful oversize flowers and mushrooms impressed by Brown’s illustrations — all a part of a program the museum runs for college kids all for artwork and museums.

“As a kid I loved the colors in it and the imaginative words and how it was a different kind of ABC book,” mentioned Fribley, who’s home-schooled. “It deals with difficult problems. I enjoyed the depth.”

Kretzschmar mentioned she hopes the exhibition would possibly bestow on its creators a present they by no means acquired: a guide contract.

“I’d love it if someone would publish this in a very artful way,” she mentioned. “It should be shared with the public it deserves.”

The Sweet and Sour Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown

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

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