The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a “poem” about ordinary people, about teenagers around a jukebox, about children at an open fire hydrant, about riding the subway alone at night, about picket lines and artist work spaces. This renowned, life-affirming collaboration between artist Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes honors in words and pictures what the authors saw, knew, and felt deeply about life in their city.
Hughes’s heart-warming description of Harlem in the late 1940s and early 1950s is seen through the eyes of one grandmother, Sister Mary Bradley. As she guides the reader through the lives of those around her, we imagine the babies born, families in struggle, children yet flourishing. We experience the sights and sounds of Harlem as seen through her learned and worldly eyes, expressed here through Hughes’s poetic prose. As she states, “I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose.” DeCarava’s photographs lay open a world of sense and feeling that begins with his perception and vision. The ruminations go beyond the limit of simple observation and contend with deeper meanings to reveal these individuals as subjects worthy of art. While Hughes states “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is, maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is,” the photographs bring us back to this lively dialogue and a complex reality, to a resolution that stands with the optimism of the photographic medium and the certainty of DeCarava’s artistic moment.