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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Migrations

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro
The Migration of the Negro, panel #1
Painting the Migration
- Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro, series of sixty paintings, casein tempera on hardboard, 1940-41
- Even-numbered panels (Museum of
  Modern Art)
- Odd-numbered panels (Phillips

By 1940 the Great Migration had been underway for thirty years. The Great Depression had brought the Harlem Renaissance to an end, and the disillusioning struggles of city life had long tempered the optimism of arrival in the North. At this juncture it was possible to step back and assess what was gained and what was lost in the flight from the South, and that is precisely what painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) did.

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His mother came from Virginia, his father from South Carolina. He moved to Harlem in 1924, when his parents split. As a young child he studied art in an after-school program and later continued his studies at the Harlem Art Workshop, where he encountered leading African American artists of the day. Following the advice of Alain Locke, he looked to African American history for the subject matter of his work. In 1938 he completed a set of paintings with captions on the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture and thereafter did similar series on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. He had long heard stories about the migration from his parents and others who had made the trek from the South. Researching the details of the migration in the Schomburg Collection at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, he distilled what he learned into a series of sixty panels, which became his best known work, The Migration of the Negro.

Lawrence's images are dominated by flat surfaces and strong colors, the latter a rural Southern survival in urban Harlem. A caption accompanies each panel. Together the captions form a contextualizing narrative that infuses each image with its particular meaning. (Indeed, one would not know that some of the images had anything to do with the migration were it not for the captions.) The captions establish a narrative voice, that of an objective, dispassionate observer: "Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred." This caption (panel 16) accompanies a poignant image of a woman slumped despondently over a table. Such contrasts between image and narration suggest that Lawrence was counterpointing two ways of understanding the migration, from without and from within, each commenting on the other. The Migration of the Negro is an indispensable text for understanding the migration and also invites discussion about the ways in which artistic understanding differs from that of history or sociology. (View online.)

Discussion questions
  1. How does the series emphasize the active response African Americans made to the conditions of their lives in the South?
  2. How does Lawrence portray the South?
  3. How does he portray the urban North?
  4. What is the effect of Lawrence's presentation of the migrants as massed and anonymous figures?
  5. In what ways does Lawrence present interior space?
  6. What is the effect of his use of color?
  7. How does Lawrence use ladder imagery?
  8. What do the images suggest about the narration?
  9. How does The Migration of the Negro comment on Locke's essay "The New Negro"?
  10. The series begins with a reference to World War I. How might African Americans have responded to The Migration of the Negro in 1941 at the outset of another world war?

Framing Questions
  •  What migrations did African Americans undertake in the twentieth century?
  •  What were the effects of these migrations?

View online.  
Supplemental Sites
Jacob Lawrence, transcript of 1995 radio interview, Online NewsHour (PBS)

Jacob Lawrence, brief overview and ten works, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Jacob Lawrence's Freedom Trail, curriculum unit, from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Jacob Lawrence, panel #1 of The Migration of the Negro, series of sixty paintings, casein tempera on hardboard, 1940-41. Reproduced by permission of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

1. Leaving, 1920   2. Writing for Help   3. The Chicago Riots   4. Promised Land?
  5. The Blues   6. Old Timers, Newcomers   7. Leaving But Staying
8. New Consciousness   9. New Art   10. Painting the Migration   11. Leaving, 1960

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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