Sweet Flypaper of Life: 1950s Harlem in Black & White


Picture it.  It’s the mid 1990s, I’m in high school, late for the morning bus, desperate for something to read during my lengthy commute.  On my Grandmother’s disheveled porch, I find a slightly sunfaded paperback.  The book is Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text by Langston Hughes and photography by Roy DeCarava (originally published in 1955).  I toss it in my backpack, completely unaware that:

1. My life would never be the same… I would see the world differently from that day on.

2. That paperback was (at the time) thirty years old and worth nearly 100 bucks.  I would only discover its value when I attempted in college to upgrade for a hardcover.  Apparently, it’s an exceptionally rare book.  And I threw it in my backpack.  Did I mention it rained that day?

About the book:

Essentially, the Sweet Flypaper is written from the vantage point of an older woman named Sister Mary Bradley, who’s a fixture in her Harlem community.  The Langston Hughes’ text is accompanied by photos by Roy DeCarava. In the text, the woman introduces us to each person in her world, as conceived by Hughes as a means to tie together a series of DeCarava’s intimate, moody photographs.  We’re let in on the subjects’ struggles as well as the hard-fought victories in their lives.  

DE_Carava_the_sweet_1How I love this book.  It captures a time on the cusp of the Civil Rights Era: a time steeped in the Electrified Delta Blues, in Joe Louis Fights, in sedans with gleaming chrome portholes, in Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, in Miller High Life, in the smell of Dixie Peach pomade.  It captures something so timeless that it stays with you…. always.  I recommend you discover a copy of your own, but until you do, enjoy the pages I reproduced here for you. Jive on!


About ayanacontreras

i love the transportive powers of sound. i am a radio host/producer, DJ, Sound designer, 45rpm collector, and art lover living in the city of wind. View all posts by ayanacontreras

16 responses to “Sweet Flypaper of Life: 1950s Harlem in Black & White

  • huskee

    haven’t visited in a while. I missed my jive! this is the business, girl. maybe i’ll find a copy at the library.


    piercing imagery. undeniable artistry. rest in peace, Mr. DeCarava.

  • problemwithcaring

    he died today, so sad. thanks for the uploads though.

  • lacy

    recently I was cleaning out my fathers attic and I found a mint copy of “The Sweet Flypaper of life”. The photography of Roy DeCarava is some of the best out there. It’s amazing that even in 1955 a person could get so much for one dollar.

    • ayanacontreras

      Hi Lacy: Yes, it is pretty amazing! It’s such a great book, made available to the people in a tasteful paperback version way back when. I think how Langston Hughes creates a narrative to tie Mr. DeCarava’s work together is also pretty amazing. What a find.

  • Kaye Jay

    I was googling for collectible bookprices for the first edition I have of “The Sweet Fly Paper of Life” when I found this website I have not read the book yet, everytime I open it and see the hand written inscription by Langston I am too much at awe to turn the page

  • rootlesscosmo

    I got my copy of Sweet Flypaper of Life at the Jefferson Bookstore on 17th St. East of Union Square in New York, probably in 1956 or 57. The store was operated by the Communist Party and didn’t survive the CP’s bustup in the years immediately after. What became of my copy I have no idea–at age 15 I wasn’t really into keeping anything except time with the music… Found your site via a link from Language Hat–good to see you creatively mixing old and new, lack and fat.

    • ayanacontreras

      Hi rootlesscosmo. thanks so much for your comment (and your story). it certainly seems like this is just the sort of book a person sort of trips over: a happy accident of discovery that still has the power to amaze.

  • misschele

    Greetings — In the 80s, I was working with Howard University Press when we published a stunning, beautiful hard-cover version of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, Oh, what a wonderful experience that was! Twice blessed, I came across an original Hill and Wang edition in my travels and that is well protected, out of reach. I bought two copies of the Press edition; one for my Mom and one for me. Mine is barely broken-in, residing in my Grandmother’s trunk, while my Mom’s has become the dog-earred coffee table book. Wonderful to reminesce, that book is priceless to me. Going to pull it out right now . . .

  • Gregory Baggett

    I am presently writing an essay about the Sweet Flypaper of Life and would love to write a piece about its reception. Anyone interested in talking with me about the experiences with the book are welcome to contact me at email@gregorybaggett.com. Thank you for your consideration.

  • Aseelah

    I so agree with you! You just wanna keep it in your pocket to read anytime you feel like feeling that nastalgic feelin’!!!

  • 1950s Black And White Photography | Photos For You And Me

    […] Sweet Flypaper of Life: 1950s Harlem in Black & White … – I got my copy of Sweet Flypaper of Life at the Jefferson Bookstore on 17th St. East of Union Square in New York, probably in 1956 or 57. The store was operated by the … […]

  • Francis Thaddeus Ray

    I found the book in my late parents’ library. In it was Langston Hughes’s calling called. On it, he had written in green were the words “Happy Holidays!”. My mother spent a year in New York in 1954/55, where she met Langston Hughes. She was in America, from South Africa, as a YWCA delegate.

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