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.