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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 e book. 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 Home, the famend Black theater in Cleveland the place Hughes premiered a number of of his performs.

What Hughes and Brown shopped round was a youngsters’s image e book referred to as “The Candy and Bitter Animal E-book.” Hughes’s spirited verses and Brown’s whimsical illustrations collectively would inform tales a few hungry parrot, mournful cow and different creatures that specific in easy verse a variety of emotions from unhappiness and regret to bliss and confidence. Hughes’s stature opened some publishers’ doorways, and in response to letters he wrote to Brown, the suggestions he heard was principally constructive. However the e book was by no means revealed of their lifetimes.

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

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

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

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

Michelle H. Martin, the creator of “Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Youngsters’s Image Books,” mentioned Hughes celebrated “Blackness, childhood and pleasure” in his works for teenagers, an viewers he wrote for all through his profession. However he by no means shied from “what Black distress is,” she added.

“It may be wrapped in stunning and compelling and recitable language,” Martin mentioned. “However as quick as his poems are, they don’t sugarcoat the underbelly of what it means to reside in a racist society.”

The e book would have paired Hughes’s fervent poem concerning 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 blissful as ever
A lion will 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 Basis) earlier than she died in 1985.

David H. Hart, an affiliate professor of artwork historical past on the Cleveland Institute of Artwork, mentioned youngsters’s literature within the Thirties was a “patently racist” subject during which depictions of animals have been typically infused with anti-Black stereotypes. Brown aspired by means of his illustrations to “affirm classes that youngsters of all colours must study,” Hart mentioned.

Like many youngsters’s books, “The Candy and Bitter Animal E-book” is stuffed with playful however cautionary tales about hubris, gluttony, unhappiness. In a single poem, Hughes explains anger, as seen by means of the eyes of Brown’s bonnet-wearing girl rattlesnake:

Mrs. Snake,
If by no means bothered,
Won’t ever
Hassle you —
However Mrs. Snake,
When she is concerned,
Turns into
A curlicue!

Kretzschmar mentioned it’s laborious to definitively say why the unique e book wasn’t revealed. In 1938, Hughes wrote to Brown that one editor objected to the publication’s expense. However Kretzschmar additionally mentioned “one has to ask if it’s as a result of they have been Black.”

“I’d be stunned if racism didn’t play a job,” she mentioned. “I’d additionally say numerous books don’t get revealed, though this was a Langston Hughes e book.”

If Hughes’s poems sound acquainted it’s as a result of in 1994, Oxford College Press revealed a revised model of the e book after Nancy Toff, the manager editor of Oxford’s youngsters books, discovered the unpublished manuscript on the Beinecke Uncommon E-book Library at Yale. Hughes minimize some unique poems however revised others and added new ones to make it an alphabet primer, additionally referred to as “The Candy and Bitter Animal E-book.” As an alternative of Brown’s illustrations, the e book featured artwork by college students from the Harlem College of the Arts. (Completed watercolors of Brown’s compositions are within the assortment of Emory College’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Uncommon E-book Library.)

Logan Fribley, a 17-year-old from South Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, grew up studying the 1994 e book and was stunned to study that the illustrations he beloved weren’t within the unique. He’s certainly 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 students enthusiastic about artwork and museums.

“As a child I beloved the colours in it and the imaginative phrases and the way it was a special sort of ABC e book,” mentioned Fribley, who’s home-schooled. “It offers with troublesome issues. I loved the depth.”

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

“I’d like it if somebody would publish this in a really suave manner,” she mentioned. “It must be shared with the general public it deserves.”

The Candy and Bitter Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown

Via July 24 at ARTneo, 1305 West eightieth Avenue, Suite 016, Cleveland, (216) 227-9507; clevelandart.org.





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