Jabob Lawrence Migration Series at MOMA Not to Be Missed

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Works
Museum of Modern Art (New York City)
Through September 7, 2015

The theory of relativity works for history as well as physics; that is, the nature of reality depends upon the position of the observer. For white Americans, World War One conjures stories of the Argonne Forest, Belleau Wood, and the Marne; World War II inspires narratives of Monte Cassino, Normandy, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Not so for African Americans—the U.S. military was segregated until 1948. Although nearly a half million black men served during the two world wars, those numbers are small potatoes when compared to the real mobilization during wartime: the Great Migration––the movement of 6.6 million African Americans from the South to the North. Among those observing the Great Migration was black artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), whose 1941 Migration Series remains one of the most vivid depictions of America's greatest voluntary internal population shift. (By way of contrast, just 500,000 Americans took part in Westward-bound wagon train sojourns between 1843-69.)

A new show at New York's Museum of Modern Art reunites for the first time in decades all 60 of the panels Lawrence painted to document the Great Migration. It is at once an audacious and poignant show—audacious because Lawrence was just 21 when he undertook the project, and poignant because he pulled no punches about why African Americans left the South, the promise of the North, or the disappointments that accompanied the occasional joys. The why was simple: Jim Crow, lynching, exploitation of black labor, and everyday indignities. Lawrence had a gift for vivid understatement. For instance, he represented the poverty of Southern blacks with a sparse scene of a man and woman staring down at their bare table and an empty fry pan hanging from the wall. To show the backbreaking labor to which children were subjected, he borrowed from ancient Egyptian art to show uneducated youngsters as so many hod carriers for an unseen white pharaoh.

When war created employment opportunities, black men and women flocked to rail lines headed north. In one panel, Lawrence drives home the theme of flight by juxtaposing a mass of black bodies headed in the same direction as an overhead pride of crows. Northern cities dazzled and intimidated, as one can see in a blocky riot of colorful tenements worthy of Mondrian.
But even at 21, Lawrence knew the downside; he chronicled race riots in Chicago and East St Louis to remind viewers that racism was alive and well north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nor did he shy away from calling out black snobbery, such as fashionable veterans of the Harlem Renaissance (1918-36) who saw newly arrived southerners more as flotsam than as kindred spirits.

In the end, though, think of the contrast between then Egyptian-like hod carriers and Lawrence's touching portrayal of three girls doing math on a school blackboard. Call it the end of ignorance, which is so often the beginning of defiance. It is instructive to consider that Lawrence's Migration Series came the same year A. Philip Randolph threatened to mobilize a black march on Washington, D.C. and forced President Roosevelt to ban discrimination in the defense industry. Many historians (including me) see that as a key moment in launching the modern civil rights movement.  

For his part, Jacob Lawrence went on to become one of the 20th century's most important black artists, and one who produced other works depicting black history. He is sometimes identified as a Harlem Renaissance painter, though its energy was nearly spent by the time Lawrence's family moved from Atlantic City to Harlem in 1930. But to remind us of other ways in which politics and culture intersect, the MOMA exhibit also includes poetry from Langston Hughes, book jackets from Richard Wright books, Depression Era photographs, and a terrific corridor where one can rest whilst listening to selections from now-iconic black musicians such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and Paul Robeson. Want to know what the Great Migration brought? Watch the 1959 video of Billie Holliday singing "Strange Fruit," and you'll figure it out really fast.

Do not miss this exhibit if you're anywhere near the Big Apple between now and September. Observe Jacob Lawrence's world. –Rob Weir

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