Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown: A Children’s Book Deferred

In 1936, author Langston Hughes and artist Elmer W. Brown—two black men, one famous and the other not—wanted to publish a book. Hughes was already there. A compliment Personification of the Harlem Renaissance. Brown was a younger painter and illustrator who met Hughes in the creative orbit. Karamo HouseCleveland’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”. Together, Hughes’s soulful verse and Brown’s whimsical illustrations will tell stories about hungry parrots, grieving cows, and other creatures that express emotions in simple verse, from unhappiness and regret to joy and confidence. Hughes’ stature opened doors for some publishers, and according to his letters to Brown, the feedback he heard was mostly positive. But this book was never published in his lifetime.

Nearly 90 years after the two men failed to find a publisher, their original collaboration finds new life. An exhibition It’s called “The Sweet and Sour Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown.” There is a collaboration between the show Cleveland Museum of Art And Artenioan organization that specializes in Northeast Ohio art and operates a gallery — where the show runs through July 24 — in the arts complex on the city’s West Side.

The 21 poems, Hughes’ letters and more than 30 illustrations and watercolors bring to life a largely forgotten artistic partnership between the two pioneers in what the show’s project manager, Sabine Kretzchummer, called “African American Children’s Literature.” , for everyone,” he said.

“The verses are beautiful and the expressions of the drawings make me smile the way Dr. Seuss makes me smile,” Kretzchmar said.

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

Michelle H. Martin, Author “Brown Gold: Milestones in African American Children’s Picture Books.” He said Hughes celebrated “blackness, childhood and joy” in his works for children, an audience he wrote for throughout his career. But he added that he was never afraid of “what black suffering is”.

“It can be wrapped up in beautiful and compelling and recitable language,” Martin said. “But as short as his poems are, they don’t convey what it means to live in a racist society.”

The book would have combined Hughes’s passionate poem about the pain of subjugation with the humorous depiction of Brown’s poem:

tiger in the zoo,
Lives the life of
Repressed anger.
tiger in the jungle,
free roaming,
Happy as always.
Could be a lion.

Brown, who corresponded with Hughes for decades, is about to get his due on the show. Born in Pittsburgh in 1909, Brown moved to Cleveland at age 20 and worked there. A social realist moralist for the Works Progress Administration, and later as a designer at American Greetings, a greeting card company. He died in 1971. Brown’s widow, Anna V. BrownBefore she died in 1985, she donated some of her husband’s work — including the photographs and watercolors in this exhibit — to ARTneo (then the Cleveland Artists Foundation).

David H. Hart, an associate professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art, said that children’s literature in the 1930s was a “purely racist” field, with depictions of animals often associated with anti-black stereotypes. was affected. Hart said that Brown, through his examples, “wanted to affirm the lessons that children of all colors need to learn.”

Like many children’s books, “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book” is filled with playful yet cautionary tales about mischief, gluttony, and sadness. In one poem, Hughes describes anger, as seen through the eyes of Brown’s bonnet-wearing Lady Rattlesnake:

Mrs. Snake,
If you ever don’t mind,
bother you –
But Mrs. Snake,
When she is upset,
I change
A curlicue!

Kretzschmar said it’s hard to say for sure why the original book wasn’t published. In 1938, Hughes wrote to Brown that an editor objected to the publication costs. But Kretzchummer also said that “one has to ask if they were black.”

“I would be surprised if racism didn’t play a role,” he said. “I would also say that many books don’t get published, although this one was Langston Hughes book.

If Hughes’s poems sound familiar, it’s because in 1994, Oxford University Press published a revised version of the book after Nancy Taff, executive editor of Oxford Children’s Books, published by Yale’s Beneke Rare Book Library. I received an unpublished manuscript. Hughes cut out some of the original poems but revised others and added new rhymes to make it The Alphabet Primer, also known as The Alphabet Primer. “The Book of Sweet and Sour Animals.” Instead of Brown’s illustrations, the book featured art by students at the Harlem School of the Arts. (Finished watercolors of Brown’s compositions are in the collection of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.)

Logan Frebley, a 17-year-old from the Cleveland suburb of South Euclid, grew up reading the 1994 book and was surprised to learn that the pictures he loved weren’t real. She’s one of eight teenagers who helped curate the exhibit and design a reading room, steps from the gallery, filled with colorful giant flowers and mushrooms inspired by Brown’s photographs — all part of A program The museum runs for students interested in art and museums.

“As a kid I loved the colors and the imaginative words and how it was a different kind of ABC book,” said Friebly, who is homeschooled. “It deals with difficult issues. I enjoyed the depth.”

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

“I would love it if someone published it in a very artistic way,” he said. “It should be shared with the public the way it deserves.”

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

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

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