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A Sweet and Sour Journey: The Collaboration between Elmer W. Brown and Langston Hughes

Sabine Kretzschmar, Manager, Education Art Collection
May 12, 2023
An angry green parrot with a yellow beak and yellow claws holding onto a red post.

One of the goals of art museum exhibitions is to shed light on little-known stories. It is more meaningful when the process is shared with members of the community — in this case, a group of eight high schoolers from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Currently Under Curation (CUC) program: Logan Fribley, Marin Hunter, Spencer Payton, Claire Pirnat, Shawna Polster, Mia Schmidt, Jacklyn Walker, and Ren Yoshioka. They cocurated the exhibition, including writing wall text, laying out the artworks, and designing the gallery. In addition, they conceived of and were responsible for every aspect of the adjacent reading room, from the initial concept on paper to the final installation. In partnership with ARTneo, a small museum dedicated to Northeast Ohio’s visual artistic heritage, the CUC team is proud to present A Sweet and Sour Journey with Elmer W. Brown and Langston Hughes, an exhibition that spotlights Karamu House artist Elmer W. Brown (1909–1971) and his long-forgotten collaboration with renowned poet, novelist, playwright, and activist Langston Hughes (1901–1967).

Figure 1. Set design at Karamu Theatre Playhouse Settlement (Elmer W. Brown and Richard Beatty), 1937. John Nash. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections, A9222

 

Brown and Hughes met and became friends through their activities at Karamu, the oldest African American theater in America (fig. 1). Brown was a member of the Gilpin Players, Karamu’s acting troupe, who performed and premiered several plays by Hughes, especially in the late 1930s. Brown had many roles at Karamu, including acting, designing sets and costumes, and graphic designing (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Playbill for “One Hundred in the Shade: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts,” 1939. Elmer W. Brown (American, 1909–1971). Relief print. ARTneo, Gift of Anna V. Brown

 

Around 1936, Hughes wrote a volume of children’s verses titled The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, for which Brown created accompanying illustrations. Hughes sent Brown copies of his manuscripts and Brown sent Hughes images for approval, such as Polly Wants a Cracker, which bears Hughes’s signature (fig. 3). Once the project was completed, Hughes used his connections in the publishing world to try to get a picture book into print. Despite positive feedback and several revisions, it was never published in their lifetimes, presumably due to both the high cost of color reproductions and racism.

Figure 3. Polly Wants a Cracker, c. 1936. Elmer W. Brown. Graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper; 30.5 x 22.7 cm. ARTneo, Gift of Anna V. Brown

 

In 1994, Oxford University Press published The Sweet and Sour Animal Book as an ABC book, with a revised version of Hughes’s manuscript. The illustrations were by students from the Harlem School of the Arts; knowledge of Brown’s role had been lost.

A decade earlier, in about 1985, Elmer’s widow, Anna V. Brown, donated several paintings, drawings, and archival materials to the Cleveland Artists Foundation (today known as ARTneo). In the mid-2010s, Christopher Busta-Peck, a children’s librarian at the Cleveland Public Library’s Langston Hughes branch and a local historian, saw the drawings at ARTneo and recognized their significance.

The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, if it had been published in the 1930s, would have been one of the first children’s picture books written and illustrated by African American artists. Scholars have referred to Hughes as one of the “fathers of African American children’s literature.”[1] At a time when most representations of Black culture in children’s literature were negative and racist, Hughes published his first groundbreaking children’s books, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932), coauthored by Arna Bontemps (1902–1973), and The Dream Keeper (1932). In a letter to Brown dated May 16, 1937, Bontemps, who was a close friend of Hughe’s, referred to the children’s picture-book business as a potential “money-maker.” Bontemps wrote, “[Elmer] may be the first Negro artist to break into it!!!”

Based on the 1930s version, the exhibition presents Brown’s drawings with text from Hughes’s original 21 poems. Brown created two illustrations for 20 of the verses, and a single image for the final one. The drawings on view are all from ARTneo’s collection. Another set of related illustrations, represented with reproductions, helps to fill in gaps. They are finished watercolors of the same compositions, in the collection of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Brown’s humorous, expressive drawings reflect the charm and character of these joyful verses (fig. 4).

Dobbin used to be

A fire horse

Pulling his truck

With pride.

Now the city’s got

A motor truck

And poor old Dobbin’s

Fired!

Figure 4. Dobbin Pulling a Truck Head-On, c. 1936. Elmer W. Brown. Graphite, crayon, and ink on paper; 29.5 x 22.5 cm. ARTneo, Gift of Anna V. Brown

 

Others have been thought to take a dual meaning, perhaps referencing the plight of African Americans (fig. 5).[2]

A lion in a zoo

Shut up in a cage

Lives a life of

Smothered rage.

But a lion in the forest

Roaming free

Is happy as ever

A lion can be.

Figure 5. Lion in a Cage (top) and Lion Roaming Free (bottom), c. 1930s. Elmer W. Brown. Graphite on paper; 30.5 x 22.7 cm. ARTneo, Gift of Anna V. Brown

In addition to the drawings, the exhibition will include paintings by Brown and archival materials, such as letters from Hughes. Down the hallway from the ARTneo gallery, visitors can experience a reading room inspired by The Sweet and Sour Animal Book. Designed and created by the CUC students under the guidance of artist Susie Underwood, it is evocative of a child’s room, filled with colors and elements found in Brown’s illustrations re-created in 3-D. Audiences will find a space where they can sit and read children’s poetry, while surrounded by animals from the book and giant papier-mâché mushrooms, peanuts, flowers, and raindrops.

The exhibition and reading room are located at ARTneo, in the basement of 78th Street Studios, and will run from May 19 to July 24, 2023.

To learn more about the CUC Fellows, visit https://www.clevelandart.org/cuc-fellows 

[1] Michelle H. Martin, “Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and the Roots of African American Children’s Literature,” in Embracing, Evaluating, and Examining African American Children’s & Young Adult Literature, ed. Wanda M. Brooks and Jonda C. McNair (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 66.

[2] Michelle H. Martin, Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books, 1845–2002 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 42.