Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a classic that I heard of many times, but never really looked too hard for. I can’t say why, really, but when Alec Soth mentioned it during his “Pictures & Words #2,” I ended up jumping on it.
If you’re not familiar with it, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a small, photographic novel, with pictures from Roy DeCarava and words from Langston Hughes. A character named “Sister Mary Bradly” narrates the story as a sort of refusal of St. Peter’s call, explaining how her grandson Rodney, various family members, friends, and their neighborhood, hold her to this life. It’s entirely fictional, and ends up reading that way too, but it’s lyrical and seems mostly straight up. Readers might be tricked into thinking it’s factual, if they’re not reading too closely (and if they haven’t read the caveat on the inside cover or seen Soth’s video).
The text begins on the cover, and runs in and around the pictures, sort of like a comic book without the speech bubbles and text boxes. Sister Bradley often points directly to specific pictures: “Take Rodney:” she says, and there’s a big picture of a younger man. In fact, looking again, Sister Bradley introduces almost every picture (if not every picture), and so the story ends up serving as a sort of extended caption that sort of forces, or suggests strongly, a specific reading. Most readers probably won’t have a problem with any of this, but I struggled some, probably down to my clinical logophilia. Setting this next to my favorite book of this type, Paul Kwiatkowski’s And Everyday was Overcast, I sorta prefer the organization of the later book, where text runs in full width paragraphs and is most often completely separate from images. The Sweet Flypaper of Life layout is reminiscent of comic books, sorta, and it works, but also makes it hard to look at the pictures separately, or to read the text on its own.
That, of course, isn’t the point at all. In the main, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a sort of window into life in Harlem in the late 1940s and early 1950s (when DeCarava made the photographs), and a vehicle for Hughes to tell this particular story.
Now. For a rather out-of-bounds, sort of an imagined too-woke reading…
I almost wrote “fairy tale” above, as Sister Mary Bradley seems a rather stereotyped and ideal grandmother/matriarch trope of a particular, easily recognized type.
Sister Bradley resembles the sort of motherly, community- and family-oriented figure that corporations used as mascots for pancake syrup and whatnot until very recently.* Sister Bradley is a familiar character: spiritual, concerned with her family, knowledgable about her neighborhood and not overly gossipy, endlessly giving and slow to complain. That she’s a fictional character means she’s likely a pastiche of people Hughes knew or was somehow aware, and if Ms. Bradley seems like a caricature, well, she sorta is, really.
Now, as I wrote on Monday, the world of the 1950s was different. Hughes was writing in a particular time, for a particular audience, and was as nearly as woke as they come for that time and that audience. Sean O’Hagan, for example, writing in the Guardian, points to the ways Hughes walked a careful tightrope with his story, between the expectations of the white culture and the needs of the African American community.
And so it’s always and only my privileged, white—and therefore more or less racist—thought process, undertaken in late April, 2021, that went almost immediately to “this would not fly today.”
And, still, the character of Sister Bradley is, quite simply, a stereotype, reading it in 2021, anyway, if not 1955. But DeCarava’s portraits and images portray individuals in all their originality and humanity, in ways that we still don’t much see. There are no drug dealers or rappers or basketball players, no comedians, no glad-handing politicians, and no white police anywhere. There are only people, going about their lives in perfectly normal ways, and it’s beautiful.
Now… my reading of the story as being all Ms. Bradley is really more or less wrong. The character is just a vehicle for talking about the lives of the people in mid-1950s Harlem: the ways people hang out and go to work; the clothes they wear; the music they listen to; kids playing on the street; the wonder they had about “…this Integration the Supreme Court has done decreed…” It’s a portrait of a community at the beginnings of a shift, really, and Ms. Bradley is just a sort of mouthpiece to make the story and the individuals depicted more human, flesh them out as people, give a shape to the neighborhood, which is something DeCarava’s photographs couldn’t really do on their own. Together, Hughes’ words and DeCarava’s photographs work together to make the whole book sing.
In all ways, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is absolutely worth picking up. The new-ish reprint from First Print Press (which is the one I have) is well done, fairly inexpensive, and available direct from David Zwirner, who is somehow connected to First Print Press. If that version doesn’t appeal, the book has been in print, in various editions and formats, mostly continually since 1955, so there are many copies and versions available.
*Do a quick google search for “Pearl Milling Company,” for example.