The Sweet Flypaper of Life


All photos from the book. Click to enlarge

A cultural milestone in the African American community, the picture book The Sweet Flypaper of Life was a collaboration between noted photographer Roy DeCarava and the writer Langston Hughes. In 1952, DeCarvara became the first African American to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.  He used the money to photograph his Harlem neighborhood, hoping to put out a book of photos. Publishing houses weren’t interested until his friend Langston Hughes came up with the idea of writing a story around a selection of the photographs. The result was a slim volume printed on cheap paper that went on to become a huge best seller.  It won praise as the first collection of photographs to offer a respectful insider’s look at African American life.

The narrator of the fictional text is a woman in her seventies, Sister Mary Bradley, who was ailing and been called to heaven but refused to go. “I done got my feet caught up in the sweet flypaper of life—and I’ll de dogged if I want to get loose.” The text and photos narrate life in her extended family and community. They also underscore how important older women are to life in Harlem.

Sister Mary herself is a caretaker for her family, especially for her wayward adult grandson, Rodney.  She says, “I done rid a million subway cars and went back and forth to work a million days for that Rodney.”  The photos show other women making that trek.

deCarava2There are dignified older women holding court in their apartments

DeCarava4and beautifully dressed to attend church.

deCarava3But it isn’t until the very last page that we get to see a photo of Sister Mary Bradley herself.

deCarava55Long out of print, copies of the book are prized collectors’ items.  Look for this treasure at your local library.

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3 Responses to The Sweet Flypaper of Life

  1. Robert Moeller says:

    DeCarava features prominently in a wonderful documentary, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, directed by Thomas Allen Harris. DeCarava and the book were a source of inspiration to a generation of African American photographers.

  2. Carol in Denver says:

    “I done got my feet caught up in the sweet flypaper of life—and I’ll de dogged if I want to get loose.”

    I often think of the sweetness of everyday life, but she states it so poetically!

  3. Reader says:

    I like a lot of Langston Hughes’s work and might read this, but God, what an atrocious title. “Flypaper”? Ugh, the image.

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