Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown: A Collaboration Deferred

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

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

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

The 21 poems, letters from Hughes and over 30 illustrations and watercolors on view revive a largely forgotten artistic partnership between two pioneers of what Sabine Kretzschmar, the show’s project manager, called “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 said.

The show’s marquee 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 kids, an audience he wrote for throughout his career. But he never shied from “what Black misery is,” she added.

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

The book would have paired Hughes’s fervent poem about the pain of subjugation with Brown’s jocund illustrations of a lion:

A lion in a zoo,
Shut up in a cage,
Lives a life of
Smothered rage.
A lion in the forest,
Roaming free,
Is happy as ever
A lion can be.

Brown, who corresponded with Hughes for decades, is the one getting his due in this show. Born in Pittsburgh in 1909, Brown moved to Cleveland at 20 and worked as a social-realist muralist 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. Brown, donated some of her husband’s works — including the illustrations and watercolors in this exhibition — to ARTneo (then the Cleveland Artists Foundation) before she died in 1985.

David C. Hart, an associate professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art, said children’s literature in the 1930s was a “patently racist” field in which depictions of animals were often infused with anti-Black stereotypes. Brown aspired through his illustrations to “affirm 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 but cautionary tales about hubris, gluttony, sadness. In one poem, Hughes explains anger, as seen through the eyes of Brown’s bonnet-wearing lady rattlesnake:

Mrs. Snake,
If never bothered,
Will never
Bother you —
But Mrs. Snake,
When she is bothered,
Turns into
A curlicue!

Kretzschmar said it’s hard to definitively say why the original book wasn’t published. In 1938, Hughes wrote to Brown that one editor objected to the publication’s expense. But Kretzschmar also said “one has to ask if it’s because they were Black.”

“I would be surprised if racism didn’t play a role,” she said. “I would also say a lot of books don’t get published, although this was a 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 Toff, the executive editor of Oxford’s children books, found the unpublished manuscript at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale. Hughes cut some original poems but revised others and added new ones to make it an alphabet primer, also called “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book.” Instead of Brown’s illustrations, the book featured art by students from 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 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 loved were not in the original. He’s one of eight teenagers who helped curate the exhibition and design a reading room, steps from the gallery, that’s accented with colorful oversize flowers and mushrooms inspired by Brown’s illustrations — all part of a program the museum runs for students interested in art 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,” said Fribley, who is home-schooled. “It deals with difficult problems. I enjoyed the depth.”

Kretzschmar said she hopes the exhibition might bestow on its creators a gift they never got: a book contract.

“I’d love it if someone would publish this in a very artful way,” she said. “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 80th Street, Suite 016, Cleveland, (216) 227-9507; clevelandart.org.

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