Posts Tagged ‘Arna Bontemps’

“Out of little acorns, big oak trees grow.”

My day began with a simple task, to research the illustrator and several of the poets included in a book that I had picked up for nothing at a roadside restaurant.  By the time the day ended, I had learned amazing things about the people and practices of times long gone, and I know my research has yet to end.  Let me start by telling you about the book.

Golden Slippers An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers is a 1941 compilation of 100-plus poems arranged by Arna Bontemps with drawings by Henrietta Bruce Sharon. The first line of the first poem, “Dawn” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, drew me in: “An Angel, robed in spotless white, bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.” Of the many African American poets cited, Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen move me most. The poems of Langston Hughes are bright and full of whimsy, Cullen’s full of pain, and Dunbar somewhere in between.  Yet nearly all are as deep as the rivers about which Hughes has written so eloquently.

The black and white drawings I didn’t find particularly stirring with the exception of one or two, but I decided to research the artist anyway because you never know what you’ll find. First, I stumbled upon an exchange of letters between Langston Hughes and art critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten.

In letters exchanged in November 1941, through which the two men engage in a dialogue about all aspects of African American art, they revisit the race of the Golden Slippers illustrator. Van Vechten says, “I question the taste of the selection in many respects. WHY should young readers be invited to read Countee’s Incident: Baltimore, for instance?” The illustration to which he refers is of a little white boy sticking his tongue out at a little black boy.

Langston Hughes responds that he would ask his friend, Arna Bontemps, about the illustrator’s race, but he thought she was white, “she draws heads and feet as if she were.” Hughes goes on to discuss the illustrations for one of his upcoming books and makes note that the illustrator must get the hair right. “… I am sure the [E. McKnight] Kauffer drawings are charming. But still, if they come out with NO hair on their heads- … my Negro public–whom I respect and like–will not be appreciative. I wrote as much to Blanche [Knopf] when I first saw the samples. Harlem just isn’t nappy headed any more … And colored folks don’t want no stuff out of an illustrator on that score.” Later, in a December letter, Hughes tells Van Vechten, “I liked Kauffer’s pictures very much. And the hair is there …”

Regardless of how one interprets the complexities around representation of African American hair, there’s no doubt that Kauffer produced some powerful images as an illustrator.

Perhaps the power of Kauffer’s imagery stems from the fact that what he produced was not a strict visual recasting of the author’s words, but more an expression of what the author’s words generated in him , a point that Van Vecht makes to Hughes in one his letters.: “The whole significance of the illustrator’s art lies in its utter subjectivity; all that we ask of him is his own interpretation of a poem, story, or novel. An illustration should … light up the creation of the poet with the strictly personal illumination that emanates from the painter. The more startling that vision is, the more completely it expresses the personality of the painter, the greater will be its importance. In a word it is a matter of complete indifference that the poet shall be able to say, “Yes, that indeed is how I see it.” What really matters is his saying, “Ah, so that’s how you see it.””

But what about Henrietta Bruce Sharon? Van Vecht may have taken issue with her drawings in the Golden Slippers, but what she went on to do with her drawings would bring solace to those most in need.  More to follow …


Excerpt from Remember Me to Harlem


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