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Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


February 28, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

To listen to a short run-through of all sixty paintings and captions by Jacob Lawrence, visit the Khan Academy’s tutorial or visit the Phillips Collection to view them one-by-one.

So much of Black History Month highlights notable African Americans who have contributed positive ideas and energy to this country. Jacob Lawrence is no exception, but his work is slightly different. In sixty panels created for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and funded by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, he described the migration of only a decade or two earlier. At the young age of twenty-one, he understood the cultural importance of this shift which changed the shape of many communities. He also highlighted historical context and valorized the everyday human struggle, rather than historical greats. His images depict poor families, train station waiting rooms, and images of hunger.

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, a book published by MoMa and the Phillips Collection, celebrates Lawrence’s achievement and incorporates commentary and poetry from contemporary authors. It also includes a very enlightening introduction to the art and the historical setting that Lawrence was the subject of Lawrence’s paintings. In it, Leah Dickerman writes:

With the Migration Series Lawrence changed tack: rather than choosing a subject set in the distant past, he picked an ongoing historical phenomenon that had begun just two decades or so before. The flow of Southern blacks to the North had started in the first years of World War I as a small stream; the numbers jumped dramatically in 1916, becoming noticeable to many observers. As early of February 5 of that year, the Defender spoke of the ‘steady movement of race families’ out of the South. By the end of 1917, Chicago’s three major dailies (the Tribune, the Daily News, and the Examiner) had written no less than forty-five articles on the exodus. More than 437,000 black southerners moved North in the course of the 1910s, and at least 810,000 more relocated in the 1920s, effecting a demographic transformation of the country that thoroughly changed its cities and its political, cultural, and economic life. Moreover, the dual influx of migrants from the Caribbean and the South in the first decades of the twentieth century had turned Harlem, Lawrence’s neighborhood, into the country’s ‘race capital,’ as Locke described it in the introduction to Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro (1925): a geographic center that gathered and intensified the aspirations of the people. The migration, like the preceding waves of European immigration, was for Locke ‘a mass movement toward the larger and more democratic chance,’ and Harlem the stage for the ‘resurgence of a race.’ (18)

In Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, bold colors and geometric figures narrate the large migration of African Americans from the South to the Northern United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The Julius Rosenwald Fund grant allowed him time to research and develop his paintings, sixty panels painted in casein tempera on hardboard, all approximately 18 x 12 inches. Even numbered panels were shown at The Museum of Modern Art and the odd-numbered panels were in the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. In addition to the panels, Lawrence and artist Gwendolyn Knight wrote captions for each panel, which Lawrence then revised in advance of the 1993-1995 showing. The captions describe a journey of migration, change, and hardship. Lawrence endeavored to describe the reasons for and impact of such a migration and in so doing, he related useful information about migration itself.

Migrations often define this planet and its human history. They explain why food grows where it does (or doesn’t), they explain the reason for cities, for zoning, and often, environmental concerns. They also explain many injustices. Jacob Lawrence researched information about the wartime migration found in authors like Emmett J. Scott, Charles S. Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Lawrence explained that he wanted to narrate for the voiceless. He wrote, “Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world….I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today” (17). Furthermore, his work continues to resonate and is taught in high school and college art classes around the country.

In fact, the 2015 book by MoMA and the Phillips Collection includes poems by a number of contemporary poets such as Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Yusef Kommunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, and others. The book includes all sixty panels, the original captions as well as the captions from 1995, and historical background as provided by Leah Dickerman. This beautiful book combines history, story, and art – the foundations of human society – as a tool which helps us better understand ourselves. I encourage everyone to visit the links and seek out the historical narrative provided by Jacob Lawrence.

To see the paintings, visit the Phillips Collection: https://lawrencemigration.phillipscollection.org/the-migration-series

Find video readings of the poetic responses from poets in the collection:
Tyehimba Jess reads his poem “Another Man Done” meant to accompany panel 22. The caption reads: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DGg8XAiY2w

Terrance Hayes reads his poem “Another Great Ravager of the Crops Was the Boll Weevil”

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