Panel 15

One's thanks for the work of Jacob Lawrence—an American painter of ingenious vision and remarkable aesthetic grace—must always be twofold. The duality stems from what was, throughout his career, a truly hybrid mission. Lawrence made history with his 1943 "Migration Series," now on display in its entirety in the airy rooms of the Phillips Collection in Washington. With its creation, Lawrence—born in the North amidst a Great War and as the stream of northbound black migrants was reaching its peak—presided over an unprecedented animation of gritty history into high art.

Today we have a word for someone who, like Lawrence, draws from historic memory and then distills it into a single artistic vision. This is the graphic novelist, and the hallmark of such narration is its continuity. Yet this stunning series of 60 painted wood panels and accompanying text—a portrait of the nearly two million people of color who flowed from the dusted towns of the Old South to the gleaming, industrial north—has rarely been joined in sequence.

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Panel 3

Like the families disunited by the upheavals of the 30-year migration, Lawrence's series was intended to stay whole; but in 1942—at the behest of the buyer, Adele Rosenwald Levy (who adored panel 42)—the story was sundered from itself. The even-numbered panels were sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and every other panel has since been housed at the Phillips Collection.

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The paintings are together again at the Phillips for the first time in 15 years. The re-unification is not only symbolic but is an essential prerequisite to understanding the scope of Lawrence's achievement. The genesis of the series is itself a whole history. One element of this is methodological: In order to keep his blacks, greens and yellows consistent while constructing such an enormous landscape, Lawrence daubed each block in patient sequence, from dark to light in his Harlem studio—ensuring the Great Migration arrived at once or not at all.

Of course, the movement of black Americans was likewise comprehensive, spanning thousands of miles and two generations—a movement tied to labor, war and above all, promise. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of blacks employed in Northern industry nearly doubled. Tales of fair jobs or singing gigs filtered back along the roads and rails that brought blacks north. New arts bubbled up and out from cultural centers like Harlem and Chicago, and the Frontier West became a place of integrated influences as blacks pushed beyond their former limits.

Lawrence, a child of the North but equally, in his words, "a son of the great migration," had long painted with an eye to the past, having completed narrative paintings devoted to folk heroes like Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. His later documentary painting, of pool halls and street scenes was entirely modern. But the career-making "Migration Series" split the difference—the archival material of this historic moment still lived and breathed in his midst. Granted federal monies from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and having learned wood block printing as well as painting techniques, the 22-year-old Lawrence began to canvass the world that migration had wrought.

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He frequented art workshops in Harlem, mingled with actors at the Apollo Theater and grilled the transplanted street talkers of black New York. He conducted research at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, reading period works by historians Carter G. Woodson and Emmett J. Scott. Dispatches from black press outlets like the Amsterdam News and Chicago Defender steamed like letters across an ocean, chronicling the years of journey to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. He swallowed and revised these accounts into the graphic narrative of exodus we see today.

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This living history can be seen in the style and substance of the panels themselves. Lawrence's work is compositionally quite sophisticated: Panels 25 and 30 play with dark negative space and foreshortened perspective to leave the impression of a flattened diorama. In panel 15, the long bar of a tree branch parts the horizon, while a small, looped noose bears the aesthetic weight of the violence that drove thousands North. Lawrence's prints are organic, yet, like the late cubism of his contemporaries, focused on geometries of expression. Elongated arms and tri-angled legs shape the events of this black history. Descriptions are spare yet resonant: "They were very poor," he tells us in panel 10. The color palette that saturates the abstract shapes in paintings 31 and 57 enhances the textile quality of the work—recalling the strips of cloth that dress a wound, or form a quilt.

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Panel 31

Lawrence's sociological research is ever-present—one sees the divided dining rooms of the city and the Jim Crow fountains of the South. Panel 29 shows a shadowy white foreman taking on black strikebreakers as a response to the strengthening Northern labor movement. The mannerist panel 53 depicts the black bourgeoisie—perhaps in Pittsburgh, or Chicago or New York; while panel 52 is a "Guernica" for the St. Louis riots, which exploded into national consciousness the very summer that would end in Lawrence's birth. To see two such panels juxtaposed at last—one angles and knees, the other feline ease—firmly yokes together the contradictions and varied social experiences of blacks living through such seismic change.

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Though this heterodoxy allows one to digest a movement of a million distinct moments, there are universalities. In panel six, seats on a train resemble pews, on which prayerful blacks made the leap of faith north. Indeed, the rail station motif, which appears in eight panels breaking up the series, provides a rhythmic consistency that is, ironically, in transit: "and then another family came up," we're told—movement is the steady state that marks the incredible scope of this American re-alignment.

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Ultimately, Lawrence's unusual achievement lay not in merely placing a text alongside images to solidify and contextualize a memory. It was in his insistence on creating a black American epic, a fantasy that was contemporary, enduring and whole. Indeed, he's written, the fresco was designed to form "a fabric of our people, our history, and when I say our history, I mean American history."

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Years later, August Wilson, playwright and chronicler of blacks in Pittsburgh—one of the most trafficked destinations during the migration—would try to describe this American scene in the opening sequence of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set at the very outset of the migration:

[T]he sun falls out of heaven like a stone…the city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads, and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses. From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chest with a song worth singing.

By 1939, the one-way tickets that built the Northern economy and swelled the ranks of its cities had long since been discarded. When Fortune magazine ran a 26-print spread of the series in 1941, it noted, "there are still few jobs and little welcome." Nevertheless, Lawrence displays the residue of these hopes—the song worth singing—with purpose, in hopes of reversing the divorce from memory.

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Panel 11

In fact, in conception and in execution, there is much that aligns Wilson's work with Lawrence's. Both were preoccupied with psychosocial themes of origin, adaptation and aftermath. Like Wilson's 20-year project, Lawrence's painstaking research and unique methodology sought a consistent, yet plural voice of black America.

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And though Wilson, who was recently honored with a retrospective at the Kennedy Center in Washington, is most often associated with the painter and mixed media artist Romare Bearden (indeed, the original title of Joe Turner was Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket, after a Bearden painting), Wilson—like Lawrence—wrote a history that forced a confrontation between those about whom and for whom Northern blacks had been speaking. Both works are among the finest articulations of the moment stitching black history to its future.

On his 1940 application for the Julius Rosenwald grant that would fund the creation of the series, Lawrence wrote that "the significance of a project such as this rests, I think, on its educational value." This is true, not only for those who were not able to bear witness, but indeed for the artist himself. Just as what was called the Great War became the first iteration of World Wars to come, Lawrence's originally titled "Migration of the American Negro" has become an opening shot in the discourse on social upheaval, our contemporary experiences of it and its representations in our imagination.

"The Great American Epic: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series" will be at the Phillips Collection through October 26.

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Dayo Olopade is a reporter at The New Republic.

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.