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Culture et politique : représentations esthétiques et littéraires

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series: a pictorial memory of black America

Les Migrations de Jacob Lawrence : souvenir pictural de l’Amérique noire
Eliane Elmaleh
p. 180-195


Jacob Lawrence, artiste afro-américain décédé en juin 2000, a étudié la condition humaine et plus spécifiquement la condition des Afro-américains durant plus de six décennies. Ses mises en scène visuelles, sous forme de séries de peintures aux thématiques variées vont d’événements historiques comme la Grande Migration des Noirs dans les années 1920-1930 à l’étude de personnages héroïques, symboles mythiques de la lutte pour l’émancipation et l’égalité. Cet article tente de mettre en lumière l’importance d’une période pour les Noirs américains qui, pour se libérer des lourdes conséquences de l’esclavage essayèrent de construire une nouvelle identité noire en affirmant l’existence d’une culture noire. Je tenterai de déterminer la façon dont Lawrence s’est positionné dans cette perspective et sa représentation de l’histoire afro-américaine au travers principalement de The Migration of the Negro, série de tableaux peints sous un mode narratif qui raconte la fuite de centaines de milliers de noirs américains du Sud rural vers le Nord urbain industrialisé après la Première Guerre mondiale. J’explorerai les multiples facettes de sa vision de la Grande Migration en tant qu’historien et artiste.

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1In June 2000, Jacob Lawrence, one of the best known African American artists, died at the age of 82. In more than six decades of work, Jacob Lawrence, a figurative painter renowned for visual dramatizations of the African American experience, studied the human condition and most specifically the African American condition. He often devoted series of paintings to a single subject, ranging from historic events to sagas of heroic figures who symbolize the struggle for emancipation and equality.

  • 1  For further information, see The Studio Museum in Harlem.Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. (...)
  • 2  He stated: “I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the pub (...)

2Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob Lawrence was raised in Harlem where he witnessed the cultural, intellectual and political development known as the Harlem Renaissance,1 in which such artists as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston, Archibald Motley, Romare Bearden and William H. Johnson introduced an expressive force to modern painting. Lectures on aspects of African American history, that valued the history of African Americans and their contribution to American history, sparked Lawrence’s interest on the subject.2

3In this article, I will first focus on the importance of a period—from the 1920s onwards—for Black Americans who, in order to free themselves from the painful consequences of slavery, attempted to construct a new “black identity” by claiming the existence of a black culture. I will try to determine how Lawrence positioned himself in this new perspective and the way he chose to represent the historical past of the African American community, through the study of his Migration of the Negro series, which is a narrative including scripts and visual images. I will explore the multi-faceted aspects of the vision he gave of the Great Migration as a historian and an artist.

The Cultural and Artistic Context

  • 3 “A Great Migration, away from the clutching hand of serfdom in the South to the urban and industria (...)
  • 4  Alain Locke, “Advance on the Art Front”, Opportunity (New York) 17, 5 (May 1939), 132-136.

4Lawrence benefited from the resources of art centers and schools in the Harlem community and from the presence of practicing professionals. Aaron Douglas, one of the leading exponents of the visual arts during the Harlem Renaissance, had already turned to painting to illustrate the history of African Americans and one of the four murals he executed for the New York Public Library already portrayed the Great Migration with an explicative narrative.3 Douglas was an influential example in the historical themes he chose as well as in the narrative devices he used—stylized, flat, cubist elements—that were to be found later in Lawrence’s work. Younger than the artists and writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Lawrence was also at a tangent to them: he was not interested in the kind of idealized images of Blacks—the Noble Negroes in Art Deco guise—that tended to be produced as an antidote to the racist stereotypes with which white popular culture had flooded America since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, he gained self-confidence thanks to the Harlem cultural milieu, in particular thanks to the art critic Alain Locke, who believed strongly in the possibility of an art created by Blacks, which could speak explicitly to African Americans and still embody the values and self-critical power of modernism. In Locke’s own words, there was, “in truly great art no essential conflict between racial or national traits and universal human values”4.

  • 5  Alain Locke, The New Negro, New York: Albert and Charles Boni Inv., 1925. Reprinted: Boston, Athen (...)
  • 6 The socialist art community, which encouraged Lawrence’s artistic development, may have directed th (...)

5The New Negro Movement became the manifesto of African American artists. Locke encouraged them to take pride in African ancestral arts and to look to Africa for inspiration. Rejecting what they perceived as a “submission to the western art canon”, the artists started to appropriate African designs to define a pictorial vocabulary, and modernism melted with primitivist, folkloric or political aspects.5 The term “primitive” was used, not only to describe artwork from indigenous cultures, but also to describe art by self-taught and folk artists. The term suggested a lack of sophistication and this corresponded to Lawrence’s desire to deal pictorially and textually with history.6

6During the 1930s, many artists empathized with leftist thinkers who criticized America’s failure to resolve its social and economic problems. Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco painted murals in the US that featured scenes from the history of oppression; used as a vehicle of protest, the murals emphasized the American Indian heritage and the overthrow of oppression and the artists sought to effect social change through art. Contemporary Mexican art gave added force to American paintings of social protest during the Depression years, and Lawrence was among those who were swept up by the movement of Social Realism.

  • 7  Richard J. Powell, Jacob Lawrence, New York: Rizzoli, 1992, 124.

That was the way all artists in every area were thinking […] And therefore, any youngster involved in that period in art that was all he would get (sic.) […] because his teachers were oriented in that way.7

7However, Lawrence set aside the influence of Rivera and the Mexican muralists, which lay heavily on other artists. He did not paint murals, but images, no more than eighteen inches by twelve. Nevertheless, he imagined the paintings as integrally connected — a single work of art, no less unified than a mural, but portable.

  • 8 Art Front sought to spread knowledge about African American artists’ issues in the larger art commu (...)
  • 9  “Jacob Lawrence”, Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art (New York) 12 (November 1944), 11.

8African American artists, like many other Americans, were disillusioned with capitalism and art became a part of the ideological struggle. Social Realism provided a means by which they could address concerns regarding racial and socio-political issues. A number of African American artists (Charles Alston, Charles White and Romare Bearden) drew illustrations for publications such as Art Front,8 in which they expressed their political sentiments overtly. Racial representation through art thus became a dominant issue. The artists felt they had to decide whether they had to identify with their specific culture and heritage or with the international art movement and the European art tradition. As a matter of fact, Black art was increasingly judged on the basis of its apparent commitment to race and its capacity to achieve political and social power. The battle lines were drawn on issues of opposition to white oppression and the struggle for equality. Art came to have value only to the extent it could advance “the cause”, the artists were judged accordingly and the “Negro condition” provided the pivot around which the art was to struggle. If this creative voice was able to find its way, it was undoubtedly also due to President Roosevelt’s domestic reform program that included the Public Works of Art Project (soon followed by the Works Progress Administration or WPA) that strongly encouraged artistic creativity. Approximately 10,000 artists were paid $20 per week on average and their work became public property. That was how Lawrence began painting as a teenager in Harlem; he received about $24 a week to create two paintings every six weeks.9

A History Painter

  • 10  The scholar and bibliophile Arthur A. Schomburg, over a 30 year period, assembled a vast collectio (...)
  • 11 In 1938, Lawrence completed 32 paintings devoted to the life of Frederick Douglass. The next year h (...)

9Lawrence was attracted by the historical significance of a number of heroes of mythic proportions for the African American community: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were icons of hope, and sources for the construction of a history not yet well—known outside the black community. The first of Lawrence’s history paintings, that earned him the title of “History Painter”, was done in 1937, when he was only 20 years old; it consisted of a sequence of panels chronicling the late 18th century liberator of Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture. In the series, Lawrence established the pattern of not using titles for his work, but numbers accompanied by simple sentences to help tell the story he portrayed. For example, the text for ten of the series reads: “The cruelty of the planters towards the slaves drove the slaves to revolt, 1776.” The 41 small panels dramatize Haiti’s struggle for independence and focus on the exploitation of farm workers by colonial settlers. Based upon Toussaint L’Ouverture’s epic struggle to emancipate Haiti from the tyranny of the Spanish and the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this series set the standard for Lawrence’s dedication to the visual description of black life and history within a narrative context.10 With its striking colors, stark geometric shapes and abstract patterns, it established the style for which Lawrence would become famous. Other works focusing on Black heroes and the struggle against slavery quickly followed.11 The panels of each of these series formed a cumulative narrative history and each painting described a specific event in the central character’s life, accompanied by a brief description of related events and information relevant to the painting.

The Great Migration

  • 12  For more information about the Great Migration, see The Negro Question in the United-States by Jam (...)

10With the success of these series, Jacob Lawrence turned to his own life and personal experiences with the contemporary issues that Blacks faced as they migrated from Southern farms to Northern urban centers. His parents were part of this mass migration of people to the North in search of work following World War I.12 As a young adult living in the North, Lawrence witnessed the migration of Blacks into Philadelphia and Harlem. Jacob Lawrence painted the Migration of the Negro series in 1941. He was 23. The Migration was a contemporary narrative, the story of an ongoing exodus of black labor. This movement, central to the development of African American culture and political freedom was invisible to most Americans. A decade before the 1952 publication of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that would remind contemporary audiences of how inherent the notions of visibility and invisibility were for many African Americans, Lawrence went on struggling with a question he had already broached in his earlier works.

A Didactic Visual Narrative

  • 13  His aim was to use the same colors in the same way. He considered that if he had painted one paint (...)

11The Migration consists of 60 panels which, like story boards for a film, are numbered and sequenced with an accompanying script. Vertical panels alternate with horizontal ones, scenes of crowds are preceded or followed by iconic, empty, almost abstract images, indoor scenes contrast with outdoor scenes, diagonal movements shift to rounded forms. Lawrence did Migration all at once, putting down one color at a time, as he moved from one panel to another. He explained that he thought in terms of one work and not 60 works, which dealt with one aspect of African American history. The panels seem to be connected to one another with a metaphorical thread, the railroad.13 Beginning and ending in a train station —geographical bounds that not only delimit the series but also the migrants’ territory—, the action unfolds with rhythmic progression from painting to painting. Abstract and expressive figures with exaggerated mask-like features act out the causes and consequences of the migration.

12Lawrence painted not just what he witnessed, but also what he heard from the oral historians of Harlem. He followed the black American tradition, reaching back to the griot, the African storyteller whose job was to keep people informed of their tribal history. He thus stated: “the great migration is a part of my life. I grew up knowing about people on the move from the time I could understand what words meant. There was always talk in my house of other families arriving from the South […] We are absolutely a people telling stories. This series came out of that—people talking about people coming up from the South”.14 Lawrence’s link to the storytelling tradition came through the double means of extended captions and pictures. He was quite eloquent about the level of significance in the series which rested on its educational value. He argued that African Americans had to realize the impact the Great Migration had on the entire nation and thus its contribution to American history:

  • 15  Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, New York: Rappahanock Press Inc, 19 (...)

It is important as part of the evolution of America, since the migration has affected the whole of America mentally, economically and socially. Since it has had this effect, I think my project would lay before the Negroes themselves a little part of what they have played in the history of the United-States. In addition, the whole of America might learn some of the history of this particular minority group of which they know very little.15

13The images set up rhythms for interpretative analysis that parallel those of the texts. The complementary texts that accompany each panel underscore the visual message. From panel to panel, this continuum of images creates the empathy of the spectator, through the latter’s participation in the reading—literal and metaphorical—of the work, which forces him to understand a part of African American history. Shifting from one panel to another, the spectator continually absorbs new images and new possible meanings. Even though he is always free to return or to glance back at previous images, he is taken in by a very tight network of signifier/signified (the visual representation and the caption) that seems to reduce the extremes of the metaphorical visual images, since the decoding is done simultaneously. This impossibility of escaping from a completely didactic interpretation of the painting, together with simple syntax written, tends to result in a reductionist discourse that may sometimes appear as a simplistic vision of African American history. The simple narrative follows the same rhythm as the images: form is seen in color areas, color as rudimentary (because of the limited palette) and the illusion of depth and movement is created only by color juxtaposition, exaggerated perspective and unusual angles of vision.

A Rhetoric of Oppression

14Following the example of other black intellectuals, Lawrence considered that collective pride in past achievements, in the context of a people who had been dehumanized, would help stimulate individual feeling of self-worth in the present.

15Lawrence’s project also aimed at depicting the rural black working classes. In a statement titled “My Opinion about Painting” published in the mid-1940s, he declared:

  • 16 Ibid, 147.

My pictures express my life and experiment. I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extend to my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American Negro working class.16

16Lawrence’s Migration series seemed to transcend ethnic and national affiliations. His declarations, which he often borrowed from the rhetoric of oppression, contribute to giving his work a humanist and universalistic dimension that prevents a strong identity anchorage, an anchorage mainly connected to the representation of “black themes”. However, Lawrence never really depicted white workers. The Whites he chose to represent, in the Migration series or in other series were almost always in the position of victimizers, which corresponded to the common perception Blacks had of all Whites.

17The progression from one painting to another seems to sing the “blues” of how millions of African Americans journeyed to the North, from the poverty and stark racism in the rural South, to the hardships of travel, and then the new challenge of living in the urban North with its own brand of poverty and racism. Lawrence’s texts convey facts as well as a mood. Three voices can be heard in his narrative, each coming from a different sociological geography and they simultaneously intone complementary songs: that of poverty and racism in the South, that of promises and hardships in the North and another one from the middle-passage—that in-between which is mainly represented by train stations—, evaluating the momentum of the migration.

From South to North, to a “new country”

18The first panel of the Migration explains: “During the World War, there was a Great Migration by Southern Negroes”. For Lawrence, the Migration was the story of “people on the move”: “I guess that’s what migration means. You think of trains and buses […] crossroads, bus stations and train stations, moments of transition. It certainly was a moment of transition in the history of America and for the race.”17

  • 18 Panel 14: “Among the social conditions that existed which was partly the cause of the migration was (...)
  • 19  Panel 49: “They also found discrimination in the North”, panel 50: “race riots were very numerous (...)

19Step by step —in bright and dull colors, angular compositions, cubistic forms, and flat shapes—, Lawrence delineated the exodus and portrayed the collective voice of o from rural to urban, agrarian to industrial society. Lawrence managed to give an account of the ambiguous feelings of the migrants who experienced a sense of hope as well as loss in leaving their homes for a new destination, like other immigrants from countries such as Haiti, Mexico or Ireland. In this context, James Baldwin’s articulation of the South as “another country” can be fully appreciated. Lawrence highlighted the conflicts that accompanied the Great Migration. The scenes in panels 14, 15 and 1618 form a unit and directly address the issue of Southern justice from an African American point of view. Lawrence also recalled that many who tried to flee the South were beaten, arrested and lynched. Panels 49, 50 and 5119 form a parallel unit addressing the racial discrimination in the North and the painful consequences of the decision to migrate.

20The Migration of the Negro series evokes a sense of over-saturated space, where portrayals of crowds account for twenty-five percent of the panels. Lawrence insisted on the mass of the people who had decided to change their lives: “they were leaving by the hundreds” (3), “The railroad stations were at times so over packed”(12), “The migration gained in momentum” (18), “and the migration spread” (23), “The railroad stations in the South were crowded”(32), “they left the South in large numbers and arrived in the North in large numbers” (35). The representation of the South that was emptying never included more than two or three inhabitants.

  • 20  “The New Negro”, op.cit.
  • 21  Many of the African American artists imitated early cubism or the post impressionist style of Ceza (...)

21The health, housing and working conditions had declined precipitously. If Lawrence was a spectator of the lives around him, as a chronicler of the terrible living conditions in Harlem, he could but become a spokesperson for the black community and be perceived as an activist denouncing racial and economic oppression. Harlem seemed to offer a wealth of narratives, portrayals of migrant experiences in the filthy tenements of Northern cities, stories of both fortune and struggle, which coalesced on his canvases. Lawrence presented the viewer with a glimpse of what these fugitives could expect on their arrival in the North. Midway through the series, at panel 31, Lawrence painted the first scene of the urban North as seen through the eyes of the arriving migrants: a flat wall of buildings punctuated by open windows, a metaphor for the city where opening and opportunity occur in a façade of isolation and indifference. His portrayal of packed tenements points to the crammed living conditions and complete lack of privacy endured by many Southern migrants. The vertical world was very different from the horizontal landscapes that they had left behind. In 1925, Locke had written that the migration represented “the transition of African Americans from medieval America to modern”.20 Lawrence’s visual metaphors show the price of this encounter with modernity. They evoke the bareness of abandoned communities, the alienation of imprisonment, the crush of overcrowding and the pain of terrorism. His cubist approach and radical simplification of forms aims at rendering people opaque and thus anonymous so that his paintings seem both simplistic and complex. The faces are two-dimensional21 and are not given unique features that differentiate one from another. Thus, the last panel depicts a sea of African American humanity: faceless women, men, and children, standing on one side of a train platform with their personal belongings, and collectively adorned in bold patches of color. Although the composition forms one chromatically intense band that spans the entire width of the scene and is framed on either side by brushy brown areas, Lawrence provides just enough variation from one individual to another and alterations in each individual’s clothing to help viewers discern the figures who often seem not to be specific people so much as embodiments of certain emotions or states of being: movement and energy, hope, despair, sorrow, struggle. In some panels, Lawrence’s reduction of the image of migrants to the sparest of forms captures metaphorically the way in which social forces reduced their life chances. Panel 55, which depicts pallbearers carrying a coffin, also addressed the infestation that poor migrants faced, the toll of disease which claimed the lives of many migrants inhabiting the crowded living quarters of the tenements.

  • 22  The painting differed from those that could be found at the two anti-lynching art exhibitions that (...)
  • 23  In “The Negro Takes His Place in American Art” (1933), an essay edited by David Levering Lewis, Th (...)

22 The series is notable for the language it does not use. Considering the violence of so much of his subject matter —prisons, deserted villages, city slums, race riots—Lawrence’s images are restrained. The painting of a lynching, for instance, leaves out the dangling body and the jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose, and the huddled lump of a grieving woman.22 Migration is a visual narrative, each image a stanza—compressed to the minimum needs of narration. Thus, panel 10, “They were very poor”, pares the elements of a black sharecropper’s life down to the minimum: a man and a woman staring at empty bowls on a bare brown plane, an empty basket hung on the wall by an enormous nail, the sort of nail one imagines in a crucifixion. This Christian resonance connected the suffering and grieving of the black community to crucifixion. There was no trace of sentimentality as though Lawrence had wanted to reaffirm that his work corresponded to Locke’s definition of the concept of modernism in African art: “intellectually significant form, abstractly balanced design, formal simplicity and unsentimental emotion”,23 an oxymoron that takes its full meaning with the Migration series. In choosing a narrative concept for caption, Lawrence set up a balanced structure of emotion and restraint.

23Jacob Lawrence produced images of African Americans’ daily lives in both rural and urban environments, in the South and in the North during the Great Migration. At a time when racist perceptions and inequities were deeply embedded in American society and the idea of racial differences accepted as self-evident, at a time when “whiteness” was the category of normative identity and most works by African American artists were hardly accepted as universal expressions of human experiences, Jacob Lawrence tried to make the issue of violence based on theories of racialized identities more vivid and immediate for viewers. His works, pervaded with a certain primitivism clearly borrowed from African art, his themes focusing on African American history and some of his statements —“any degree of success as a creative artist that I have, is mainly due to that black experience which is our heritage—an experience which gives inspiration, motivation, and stimulation—”24 could only encourage the advocates of “The American Negro Art”. However Lawrence also rejected the labels “Negro artist” and “Negro Art”, classifications that he tended to consider as a ghettoization and a stigmatization of the black community. He wanted to be first an American artist: “There is only ‘art’, even if it has been made by artists that are black […] The black artist’s role is to reveal to all the human core, the human experience as seen through the black experience”25.

24The Migration series was a vehicle for giving voice to part of the American population that had long been silenced, and its public showing in 1941 was to offer another vision of American history, mainly to African Americans who could see depicted the hopes and dreams of earlier generations. The series managed to capture the feeling, tensions, and historical events that shaped and accompanied the massive movement of rural Blacks. Lawrence was not a sentimentalist or a romantic like many other Black artists of the 1940s and 50s. A man of few words, his paintings spoke in a simple visual language that most viewers from his Harlem community could appreciate and understand.

  • 26  Oxford University Press, 1971, 195.

25Even though Lawrence did not only tell the “History of the Negro” but also introduced viewers to a new pictorial world, the criticism that surrounded (and still surrounds) his work, remained closely linked to his subject matter and ethnic identity. As the cultural historian Nathan Irvin Huggins notes in Harlem Renaissance, his 1971 anthology: “It is as if it were defined in the ethnic constitution of things that to be a Negro artist in America one must in some way be a race conscious artist”.26Lawrence emerged in a context when he had no choice but integrate a labelled cultural art scene and he was one of those African American artists who used their cultural identity to become emancipated even though this identity also imprisoned them as their problematic was articulated around the idea of the necessary construction of a different art that would go against “white art hegemony”; and the majority of the analyses of their art took into account this ethnic specificity. Subjects and themes were thus predetermined by Lawrence’s racial group, which certainly limited creative options.

26 Themes of oppression and discrimination, flight and exile, sacrifice, endurance and determination emerge through the narrative figuration to convey a part of African American history. The Migration series is cinematic as well as musical with the leitmotiv of crowds in motion like the metronomic clacking of steel wheels on rails. Without indulging in sentimentality, each caption is a narrative about aspiration, determination and perseverance. The refrain “the migrants kept coming” punctuates the story of a triumph over diversity.

  • 27  Peter t. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois (eds.), Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Se (...)

27Thus, from the beginning, Lawrence’s art can be understood as one of protest, even though he insisted that he was unaware of it. By his own account, he was simply drawing his images from the life he knew. He showed he was not only an “American Negro artist”, even though he integrated a movement whose points of reference he used. The modernist devices employed in the series contributed to the sense of an unsettled and uncomfortable interaction between Whites and African Americans. Lawrence’s response when asked about the viewers’ perceptions of his work reinforces a universalistic approach to art: “I’d like for them to see that I had something to say about this particular theme […] and it means just as much to a person of one culture as it does to someone of another”.27 Because of his humanist insistence on horror and on acts of denial of humanity, his work lent itself to social issues and he became a spokesman, portraying in the visual arts the black struggle and experience.

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Reference books and catalogues

ALSTON Charles, Jacob Lawrence, New York: James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild, 1938.

BAUR John I. H., (ed.), New Art in America: Fifty Painters of the Twentieth Century, Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1957.

BROWN Milton W., Jacob Lawrence, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974.

DAVIS Lenwood G., and Janet L. Sims, Black Artists in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography of Books, Articles, and Dissertations on Black Artists, 1779—1979, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

DOVER Cedric, American Negro Art, Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1960.

DRISKELL David C., Amistad II: Afro-American Art, Nashville: Department of Fine Art, Fisk University, 1975.

DRISKELL David C., Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

ELIOT Alexander, Black Artists of the New Generation, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1977.

GAITHER Edmund Barry, Afro-American Artists, New York and Boston, Roxbury, Mass.: Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists with Museum of Fine Arts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 1970.

GELBURD Gail, A Blossoming of New Promise: Art in the Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, Hempstead, N.Y.: Hofstra University, 1984.

GIPS Terry (ed.), Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, College Park, Md.: University of Maryland, 1998.

HUGGINS Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, London, Oxford, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

LEWIS Samella, and Ruth G. Waddy, Black Artists on Art, Los Angeles: Contemporary Crafts Publishers, 1969.

LEWIS Samella, African American Art and Artists, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990.

LOCKE Alain, The Negro Artist Comes of Age, New York: Albany Institute of History and Art, 1945.

LOCKE Alain, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940, Reprint, New York: Hacker Art Books, 1971.

NESBETT Peter t. and Michelle DuBois, (eds.), Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Seattle and New York: University of Washington Press and Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, 2000.

PORTER James A., Modern Negro Art, New York: The Dryden Press, 1943. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1992.

PORTER James A., The Negro in American Art, Los Angeles: UCLA Art Galleries, Dickson Art Center, 1966.

POWELL Richard J., African American Art, Twentieth Century Masterworks II, New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1995.

POWELL Richard J., Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century, London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

POWELL Richard J., Jacob Lawrence, New York: Rizzoli Art Series, 1992.

SAARINEN Aline B., Jacob Lawrence, New York: American Federation of Arts, 1960.

The New York Council of the United Negro, The Portrayal of Negroes in American Painting, New York: Forum Gallery, 1967.

The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

TURNER Elizabeth Hutton, (ed.), Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, Exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: Rappahannock Press in association with The Phillips Collection, 1993.


“And the Migrants Kept Coming”, South Today (Atlanta) 7, 1 (spring 1942), 5-6.

“Art News of America: Picture Story of the Negro’s Migration”, ARTnews (New York) 40, 15 (November 15-30, 1941), 8-9.

“Art: Black Mirror”, Newsweek 61, 15 (April 15, 1963), 100.

“Jacob Lawrence”, Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art (New York) 12 (November 1944), 11.

“Jacob Lawrence’s Paintings Depict Negro Exodus”, The Economist (London) 330 (January 8, 1994), 82.

BECK James H., “Jacob Lawrence”, ARTnews (New York) 62, 2 (April 1963), 13.

CANADAY John, “The Quiet Anger of Jacob Lawrence”, New York Times, January 6, 1968, 25.

DEVREE Howard, “Forceful Painting”, New York Times, January 6, 1957, sec. 2, 15.

GIBBS Josephine, “Jacob Lawrence’s Migrations”, Art Digest (New York) 19, 3 (November 1, 1944), 7.

GIBSON Eric, “Exhibition Notes: ‘Jacob Lawrence-The Migration Series’ at the Phillips Collection”, The New Criterion (New York) 12, 4 (December 1993), 51.

KAUFMAN Jason Edward, “The Saga of American Blacks According to Jacob Lawrence”, The Art Newspaper (London) 33, 4 (December 1993), 14.

LOCKE Alain, “‘… And The Migrants Kept Coming’: A Negro Artist Paints the Story of the Great American Minority”, Fortune 24 (November 1941), 102-109.

LOCKE Alain, “Advance on the Art Front”, Opportunity (New York) 17, 5 (May 1939), 132-136.

LOERCHER Diana, “Jacob Lawrence-World’s Painter of Black Experience”, Christian Science Monitor (Boston), June 6, 1974, F6.

LOWE Jeannette, “The Negro Sympathetically Rendered by Lawrence, Wechsler”, ARTnews (New York) 37, 21 (February 18, 1939), 15.

SCHWABSKY Barry, “Black Exodus”, Art in America (New York) 84, 3 (March 1996), 88-93.

VAN CLEVE Jane, “The Human Views of Jacob Lawrence”, Stepping Out Northwest 12 (winter 1982), 33-37.

WATKINS Richard, “Jacob Lawrence: The Famous Artist Who Chronicles Major Black Events in American History Says He Is Motivated and Inspired by the Black Experience”, Black Enterprise (New York) 6, 5 (December 1975), 66-68.

WERNICK Robert, “Jacob Lawrence: Art As Seen through a People’s History”, Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) 18, 3 (June 1987), 56-67.

ZIMMER William, “A Painterly Storyteller Takes Black America as His Subject”, New York Times, April 5, 1992, WC20.

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1  For further information, see The Studio Museum in Harlem.Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Catalogue of the Exhibition, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987. W.E.B. du Bois and Alain Locke, among others, were challenging and redefining the very identity of the African American people; Langston Hughes was introducing the black experience to modernist poetry; Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway retooled jazz and African American blues.

2  He stated: “I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools [...] I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro («Jacob Lawrence and the Modern Black Freedom Struggle”, 1940, Quotes <> website last visit 01/26/07). In the early 20th century, most scholars ignored the contributions of African Americans to American history and culture. Many of them saw only slave history. Mobbing against this current of thought, scholars such as George W. William, Carter G. Woodson (The African Background outlined or Handbook for the Study of the Negro,Washington, D. C., The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc, 1936 ; African Heroes and Heroines, Washington, D.C., The Associated Publishers, Inc, 1939) and Benjamin Brawley (Negro Builders and Heroes,Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1937)sought to explain the importance of the African American experience to the evolution of the US.

3 “A Great Migration, away from the clutching hand of serfdom in the South to the urban and industrial life in America began during the First World War. And with it there was born a new will to creative self-expression which quickly grew in the New Negro Movement of the twenties. At its peak the Depression brought confusion, dejection and frustration”, Cedric Dover, American Negro Art, Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1960, 186.

4  Alain Locke, “Advance on the Art Front”, Opportunity (New York) 17, 5 (May 1939), 132-136.

5  Alain Locke, The New Negro, New York: Albert and Charles Boni Inv., 1925. Reprinted: Boston, Athenum, 1968.

6 The socialist art community, which encouraged Lawrence’s artistic development, may have directed the young painter’s attention to issues of collective identity and interaction. Artists such as Charles Alston nurtured his development, and helped him understand “the importance and the ability of the common man or woman to have a hand in shaping their own destinies”. For more information see the following essays: McElroy, Guy C., Richard J. Powell, and Sharon F. Patton. African American Artists 1880-1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection. Exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1989 and Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists,Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990.

7  Richard J. Powell, Jacob Lawrence, New York: Rizzoli, 1992, 124.

8 Art Front sought to spread knowledge about African American artists’ issues in the larger art community and to support black civil rights. The editors also provided space for African American artists to express their own views.

9  “Jacob Lawrence”, Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art (New York) 12 (November 1944), 11.

10  The scholar and bibliophile Arthur A. Schomburg, over a 30 year period, assembled a vast collection of books, manuscripts, prints, all describing and detailing the African American experience. Schomburg’s holdings were acquired by the New York Public Library and housed in the Harlem branch, where they were repeatedly consulted during Lawrence’s research and this experience led the artist to embrace black history as a crucial theme in his work.

11 In 1938, Lawrence completed 32 paintings devoted to the life of Frederick Douglass. The next year he did a series of 31 pieces illustrating the life of Harriet Tubman. And in his John Brown series, Lawrence continued to use skewed perspectives and sharp, angular forms to convey the tension of a narrative about the struggle against slavery. Lawrence commented: “The inspiration to paint the John Brown series was motivated by historical events as told to us by the adults of our community, the black community. The relating of these events, for many of us, was not only very informative but also most exciting to us, the men and women of these stories were strong, daring, and heroic; and therefore we could and did relate to these by means of poetry, song, and paint”: <>, website last visit 01/26/07.

12  For more information about the Great Migration, see The Negro Question in the United-States by James Stuart Allen (New York, International Publishers, 1936), Negro Migration during the War by Emmet Jay Scott (New York, Oxford University Press, 1920) and The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward: Effects of Recent Migration to Northern Centers by Louise Veneable Kennedy (College Park, Md.: McGrath Pub. Co., 1930).

13  His aim was to use the same colors in the same way. He considered that if he had painted one painting and completed it and gone on to the next 60 times, they would all have been different.

14  «The Migration of the Negro», 1941 <>, website last visit 6/30/2006.

15  Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, New York: Rappahanock Press Inc, 1993, 153.

16 Ibid, 147.

17   “Jacob Lawrence and the Modern Black Freedom Struggle”, <>, website last visit 6/30/2006.

18 Panel 14: “Among the social conditions that existed which was partly the cause of the migration was the injustice done to the Negroes in the courts»; Panel 15: «It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this”; Panel 16: “Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave when one had occurred”.

19  Panel 49: “They also found discrimination in the North”, panel 50: “race riots were very numerous all over the North”, panel 51: “This resulted in many of the race riots and the bombing of Negro homes”.

20  “The New Negro”, op.cit.

21  Many of the African American artists imitated early cubism or the post impressionist style of Cezanne. Form and space were converted into areas of colour, emphasizing the two-dimensional surface of the painting.

22  The painting differed from those that could be found at the two anti-lynching art exhibitions that had been held in New York in the spring of 1935: An Art Commentary on Lynching organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Struggles for Negro Rights organized by a number of leftist organizations. Both shows were grounded in the hope that art could implement social change by moving viewers from empathy to activism. Although both art exhibitions were successful in drawing attention to lynching and social injustices, no federal legislation materialized. In 1937 and 1940, anti-lynching bills were passed by the House but defeated in the Senate. See Park Marlene, “Lynching and Anti-lynching: Art and Politics in the 1930s”, Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, 18 (1993) and Zangrando Robert, The NAACP Crusade against Lynching, 1909-1950, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980, 137-144.

23  In “The Negro Takes His Place in American Art” (1933), an essay edited by David Levering Lewis, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader,New York: Viking, 1994, 137.

24  “Jacob Lawrence and the Modern Black Freedom Struggle”, 1940, Quotes. <>,website last visit 6/30/2006.

25  Idem.

26  Oxford University Press, 1971, 195.

27  Peter t. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois (eds.), Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle and New York, University of Washington Press and Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, 2000, 239.

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Eliane Elmaleh, « Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series: a pictorial memory of black America »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V - n°1 | 2007, 180-195.

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Eliane Elmaleh, « Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series: a pictorial memory of black America »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. V - n°1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 21 octobre 2009, consulté le 21 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Eliane Elmaleh

(Le Mans, France)
Eliane Elmaleh is an assistant professor who teaches American civilization at the Anglo-American department of the Université du Maine, Le Mans, France. Her fields of research are contemporary art, feminist discourses, the American media and identity politics. She has published a number of articles in scholarly reviews such as Annales du Monde Anglophone, Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines, European Journal of American Culture and La Revue LISA for which she has also initiated the project of an issue on the uses and counter-uses of stereotypes among African Americans.

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