Jacob Lawrence was a black painter whose work has a similar feel to the cubism done by Picasso in the early 20th century. Lawrence was able to use this influence and make it more suited to the experiences of black Americans during the Jim Crow years in Harlem. Combining black and brown silhouettes with the vivid colours of their surroundings speaks volumes to how these people felt about themselves and the darkness of their skin that clung to them. At the age of 23, in 1941, he gained American recognition with his 60-panel The Migration Series, which depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north. His own family was part of this migration as his family was from the south, and they moved to Harlem when Lawrence was 13. Within The Migration series, the individual panels are paintings showcasing the hard manual labour black men were forced to do, the women doing domestic duties, confrontations with authorities, and many celebrations with prayers. It tells an intergenerational story that comes right after the First World War and seemingly ends as another war begins.
In my research and studying of Lawrence’s work, I am captivated by the fact that most of his works can tell a story in a single painting and blend into a larger cohesive tale. Before his Migration Series, he did a 32 piece work on the life of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and activist. He also did a 31 piece on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Both series were featured in the Library of Congress in Washington as commemorative works celebrating black Americans on the 75 anniversary of the 13th amendment in 1941. After serving in the coast guard in the second world war, on the first racially integrated ship, where he would paint in his spare time, his inspirations began to change. Now he would never shy away from any taboo subject matter. After admitting himself for psychiatric evaluation in the late ’40s, he created an eleven-piece work called Hospital. Because of his bravery and drive to paint the black American experience through a black lens, he achieved great success. Lawrence later received the National Medal of Arts from President George H.W. Bush in 1990. One of his paintings now hangs in the White House, cementing his artistry and influencing American black culture.
He (Lawrence) is able to capture all aspects of this experience, the migration experience, from the good, the bad, the painful, what was hard about this life that they were leaving, what was hard about the life that they entered. But he does it with no shame and with great beauty, and it’s just really wonderful. – Jacqueline Lawton, 2015
We at Theatre for Change highly suggest you check out some of Lawrence’s works to understand the experiences of black americans in the 20th century. It can help to understand the continuing racial injustice faced by black people today worldwide. All sources for this article are provided below.*
“And the migrants kept coming…”