Jacob Lawrence Changed the Frame of How We Look at History

Jacob Lawrence
Struggle: From History of the American People
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA
Through April 26, 2020
(Click images for larger size)

One of my mantras when teaching or discussing is that how it looks depends upon who is viewing it. Change the frame, you change the game.

In his lifetime, few African Americans were as acclaimed as Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). He grew up in Harlem and because he launched his first major show when he was just 23, he is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance even though it had faded by then. That’s just one of the many ways in which black artists have been stuffed into convenient boxes. Call it a white frame. Jacob Lawrence powerfully depicted the conditions of black folks, but he was also an American artist. Like many people of color, he was at his incisive best when he challenged America to live up to its own ideals.

Between 1949-54, Lawrence spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library, where he researched American history and looked at how it was illustrated in textbooks. He finished his tasks in the same year the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in its landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision. Lawrence began to paint his version of history: 30 panels that focused on American history from the Revolutionary War era through to the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. His paintings covered the big events, but often from the perspective of individuals pushed to the margins: slaves, Native Americans, and soldiers who marched behind those glorified in textbooks. Change the frame and you change the game.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has reunited the panels for the first time in 60 years–or at least most of them. Five panels are either missing or too fragile to travel. By the 1950s, abstraction was all the rage. Lawrence was affected by the movement, but his panels are a distinct hybrid of a lot of things, including representationalism, cubism, and expressionism. You won’t stand before them trying to figure out what you’re gazing upon. Instead, something more profound is at work. The figures are recognizable as human beings, but Lawrence did not paint them true to life because he wanted viewers to focus upon other things. There is a theme that runs through the series and it is painted red, a reminder that blood was shed. The burning question is, whose blood?

The first panel (top) is of Patrick Henry exhorting a crowd in ways reminiscent of John Calvin preaching from a high pulpit. He asks if life and liberty must be purchased by slavery and chains. You will notice that blood drips from a high, but upon whom is it falling? We need to talk about that. Two panels later, we see a panel captioned “Rally Mohawks!” but these “Indians” are white Sons of Liberty dumping tea into Boston Harbor–their disguise a sort of red minstrelsy. Ah, but four of the six Iroquois tribes–one of which was the Mohawks–fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution. And why not? It was the colonists who warred on them, not the British Crown.  

Nor does Lawrence allow us to forget that slave blood is part
of the story of American struggle. The second panel takes a look at the Boston Massacre. In legend, the first colonist to die was Cripus Attucks, a man of African and Native American heritage. Panel 5 was inspired by a 1773 petition to Massachusetts colony. A man known to us only as Felix was critical of fellow African Americans willing to take up arms. He noted that his people had no property, wives, city, or country.
Poor whites also come in for sympathy. His summer soldiers panel depicts those who actually bore arms, not the rhetorical patriots that Thomas Paine decried. They suffered badly for their patriotism. It was their blood that flowed in pitched battles with Hessians. We get the sense that violence is endemic in the white soul in Lawrence’s powerful; peek at the Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton duel. Burr appears only in shadow, but with his gun trained on the dying Hamilton. Blood again in the Battle of New Orleans, a skirmish that actually too place after the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 had been signed. Black blood is drawn in Lawrence’s look at an 1810 Georgia slave rebellion, and we know that Native blood will flow in his concluding panel on west of the Appalachians expansion. (See below for these two panels.)

This is simply an amazing collection. All of the action, drama, and heroics associated with the birth of the United States is there. Lawrence’s colors are bold, his figures vigorous, and the struggles intense. I can do no better than to quote myself to end this review: Change the frame and you change the game.


Rob Weir


Gordon Parks Exhibit is Masterful

 Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950
Addison Gallery of American Art
Andover, MA
Through April 26, 2020

I’ve long had ambivalent feelings about Black History Month. First, it’s held in February, the shortest month. Second, it makes it seem as if black history is a diversion to be considered briefly and then pushed back to the margins. In the spirit of extending contemplation, let’s consider two exhibits that are so good that you will dwell upon them early and often.

First, there is a stunning display of photograph from Gordon Parks (1912-2006) at the Addison Gallery on the campus of Phillips Andover Academy. One might quibble over the identity
of the greatest African American photographer, but Parks is probably the most famous. He was self-taught and was just coming into his own around 1940. This was a heady time for working photographers. Parks began by shooting portraits and documenting street life in the Twin Cities and Chicago. He excelled at both. That’s not as easy as it sounds. As anyone who has tried to do serious camera work can attest, there is a world of difference between the formal demands of portraiture and capturing the spontaneous activities associated with everyday work, play, and domesticity.

Parks faced the additional challenge of making portraits of black subjects. He used back and white film stock, a medium that required careful balancing of light and shadow, especially the latter. Shadow is often the key to making a dramatic photo, but it takes skill to give enough shadow for impact but not so much as to lose definition in dark faces. Parks’ portraits were indeed masterful. They also imbued his subjects with great dignity, a quality he much preferred to whimsy. He brought that same approach to his street scenes. Some of those images are playful, but he always maintained the subjectivity of the people in his viewfinder. That is, they are unique individuals, not archetypal characters.

 Parks drew the attention and admiration of Roy Stryker, the powerful head of the New Deal’s photographical division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Government work was a good gig to secure, even in the waning days of the Great Depression. Parks’ images can certainly stand up to those of more heralded white shutterbugs such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, or Margaret Bourke-White. He was also able to parlay his FSA assignments into new ones with the Office of War Information.

When World War II ended, new opportunities arose, including commercial promotional work for Standard Oil. Steady work was also available for picture-heavy publications such as Life, Look, Ebony, and Glamour. As much as by circumstance as by plan, Parks documented the lives and deeds of black luminaries who happened to be friends: from Langston Hughes to Marian Anderson and Richard Wright.

Again, though, he had an eye for dignifying subjects powerful and humble. Perhaps his most famous shot was his version of American Gothic, an African American cleaning woman at the US Capitol standing in front of a large American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. Ironic commentary was another Parks signature. In the case of American Gothic, few today realize that Parks got to know Ella Watson, his subject. He took many other pictures of Watson­–some of which appear in the exhibit­–and documented her heroism. Although she made just $2000 per year, Watson–a deeply religious woman–supported an adopted daughter and several grandchildren on her earnings.

Parks would go on to become a major voice speaking out against racial injustice. The Addison Gallery exhibit presagesreally sees– the humanity within a person, it becomes untenable to countenance violations of their personhood. The New Tide is a title suggestive of Parks’ career and political arc. It is a very powerful and large exhibit. Make your way to Andover to see it; be prepared to surrender to its might.
this aspect of his career in a subtle but powerful way. Once one sees–

Rob Weir


Sorrow to Anger: Wasted Money = Wasted Lives

Terrorist cell 
Cancer cell

      Which is more dangerous?

 Something happened to make me break my non-politics diet: a friend died way too early. Out of respect for the family I will not mention her name, but the cause was breast cancer. My shift from sorrow to righteous anger compels me to name those complicit in her passing: the military and fat-cat plutocrats.

I was once believed that cancer would be vanquished by now. When I was a child, there was nothing America couldn’t do. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but overall optimism prevailed. It took a hit during the Vietnam War, but there were still Great Society programs that worked on domestic shortcomings. That America still built highways, parks, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals, dams, and sewers. It didn’t take care of all its citizens as well as it should, but I dared hope it would tackle civil rights and gender discrimination; after all, it protected union members, the elderly, and the poor. It was an America that believed in science and had already eradicated polio, diphtheria, measles, mumps, and smallpox. Women seldom died in childbirth and they at last gained access to birth control options. TB was scary, but it was no longer an automatic death sentence. With DNA sequencing underway surely we were on the cusp of wiping out horrible diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, TB, and cancer.

What happened instead was precisely what President Eisenhower warned against in 1961: the military-industrial complex took over. America became a nation of tin soldiers, expensive toys, and war profiteers. I shall not add my name to the rolls of those who pretend to love our camouflaged warriors. When I see someone in uniform, I see wasted money that ought to go to something productive, not destructive. I don’t believe soldiers are protecting my “freedom.” I read history books; I know that the US military hasn’t won a war since 1945. Spare me your “what about” questions. They are like tin soldiers: hollow. Every U.S. military engagement since World War II has had the net effect of making the world less safe. This includes the “war on terror,” which has created more enemies than it has eliminated. I cannot say, “Thank you for your service.”

If only the tin soldiers were the root cause of waste. That dishonor goes to the Pentagon, the plutocrats, and the politicians who stir the Kool-Aid the masses drink.  Who else drew up military budgets that (in adjusted dollars) rivals what was spent during World War II? Who profits from all manner of broken toys: Strategic Defense Initiative (aka/ “Star Wars”), stealth helicopters, laser cannons, the neutron bomb, the Future Combat System …? More than $100 billion has been spent since 1995 on junk that doesn’t work. Yet we still build tanks that can’t survive IEDs and aircraft carriers that are sitting ducks in the age of long-range missiles and drones. The United States has 170,000 troops stationed in 150 foreign nations. That’s not a typo. There are more than 55,000 in Japan and some 35,000 in Germany, two nations wealthy enough to take care of themselves. Explain why we have troops in Australia, Britain, Italy, or Spain. We even have some in The Netherlands–presumably not to protect its “coffee shops” or brothels. When did the Department of Defense revert back to the Department of War? Why aren’t troops deployed at home rather than abroad? Why do we spend more on war than the next seven top national defense budgets combined?

This travesty exists because military suppliers make a financial killing. Do Connecticut politicians care if we need another electric submarine as long as the bases are hiring? Will a South Carolinian pol ever call for reduced training at Parris Island? Yet even they are the tools of the billionaire investors whose pockets are lined by the death industry. A non-woke electorate allows the power elite to set economic priorities and that means more guns and to hell with butter. The electorate was asleep at the wheel during the Obama administration when it buzzed through $763 billion on defense in 2009. The Orange Fool now in office wants to go even higher, though the national debt is over a trillion dollars.

This pisses me off. An economy centered on the death industry also kills off the battlefield. It means there are only crumbs to rebuild infrastructure–like clean drinking water–or invest in science. In 2019, the National Institute of Health budgeted $39 billion; the Pentagon got $686 billion. No wonder we’ve not cured cancer. If you’re keeping score, there were 1,015 American terrorism-related deaths in 2019. (All the terrorists were homegrown.) By stark contrast, 606,880 Americans died of cancer. My friend passed decades before her time because America did not keep faith with her. My faith in America has become agnostic on a good day. Today is not a good day.