Roy DeCarava included David in his 1955 The Sweet Flypaper of Life. This best-selling book marries DeCarava’s photographs with text by Langston Hughes. In an imaginary monologue, the fictional Sister Mary Bradley carefully watches over her children and grandchildren. She describes David as “a little boy from down the street” who, without attention from his father, “grew up sad.” Like many of DeCarava’s subjects, David is still. This invites us to also be still—to look at him longer and think more deeply about him. His gaze meets our own with a startling maturity, but he also seems to look beyond us.
Born in New York City in 1919, Roy DeCarava came of age during the Harlem Renaissance when the artistic creativity of African American authors, painters, and musicians flourished. This inspired him to create images that refute the “superficial” or “caricatured” depictions of African Americans or present them as “a problem.” Instead, he strove to show African American life with “the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.” His photographs of the everyday lives of African Americans in Harlem are intimate but unsentimental, tender but honest.