Black Lives Matter at MoMA

In 60 panels, the great African American painter Jacob Lawrence summed up the experience of millions of blacks who migrated from the South to the North before 1940.

At a time when so much of our current racial life has been dominated by cell phone videos of fatal encounters between the police and unarmed black men, the new Jacob Lawrence show at the Museum of Modern Art, One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, has taken on added meaning by virtue of the history it brings to the present moment.

The show, which will be at MoMA until September 7, reminds us of how much the country was transformed between 1915 and 1940 by the internal migration of as many as two million African Americans, who began leaving the rural South at the onset of World War I when jobs opened up in Northern factories. In the spirit of a graphic artist, Lawrence has captured how this northward journey from the Deep South was a mix of rewards and terrors.

The exhibit, organized at MoMA by curator Leah Dickerman with curatorial assistant Jodi Roberts, brings together all 60 panels that make up Migration for the first time in 20 years and reflects a period when racial protest in America was on the rise.

In 1939, the year Lawrence began research for his work at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), Miriam Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 after she was refused permission to sing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

A year later, when Lawrence began the actual work on his paintings, Richard Wright published Native Son, his account of black-white life in Chicago.

And in 1941, the year Lawrence completed Migration, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, forced President Franklin Roosevelt to end discrimination in defense industries by threatening a mass march on Washington for July 1.

Lawrence, who was just 24 when he finished Migration, grew up in poverty, spending time in foster homes and dropping out of school at 16. During the depression he struggled to support himself as an artist, finally getting by with help from the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that let him establish a studio on 125th Street in Harlem that was big enough to let him work on all his panels at the same time.

It was all the help Lawrence needed to get started. Migration brought him instant national recognition. In 1941 he secured a showing at the prestigious Downtown Gallery of Edith Halpert, then on East 51st Street in New York, and with her aid, the panels he had done were brought to the attention of Fortune magazine, which featured 26 of them in a pictorial spread in its November 1941 issue.

With success assured, Lawrence’s next concern became preserving the integrity of Migration. He wanted his 60 paintings to remain together rather than be sold piecemeal. He did not get his wish, but at the end of his show at the Downtown Gallery, he got a good compromise. MoMA and the Washington, D.C. Phillips Collection, then the Phillips Memorial Gallery, agreed to divide the paintings. The Phillips Collection took the odd-numbered panels; MoMA took the even-numbered ones.

The division kept the south-to-north framework of Migration intact, and before taking possession of what they owned, the museums collaborated on a two-year travelling exhibition of Migration, which went to 15 venues before ending with a show at MoMA in October 1944.

In an era when so many first-rate black artists struggled for recognition, what allowed Lawrence his early success was the accessibility of his work. His social and political perspectives are unmistakable in Migration, but in contrast to such social realists of the ’30s as Ben Shahn and Philip Evergood, Lawrence keeps his paintings visually stark.

Lawrence called his style “dynamic cubism,” and what it amounted to in practice was a modernism that depended on a deliberate simplification of forms. His paintings, done in tempera, rather than oil, on composition board often no more than 12” x 18” in size, show generalized figures rather than detailed individuals. The paintings rely on flat forms that are frequently little more than silhouettes to convey the ordeal of the migration experience they describe.

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It’s the situations faced by the people portrayed in these panels that typically give the images their meaning. Lawrence intrudes only to supply his panels with captions—a matter he considered so important that he redid most of his captions in 1993, seven years before his death at the age of 82.

This visual economy means that the 60 paintings in Migration don’t come across as repetitious. Lawrence’s minimalism gives his viewer the freedom to complete the paintings. Thus, in Panel 10, captioned “They were very poor,” we see two figures sitting down to meal in which their only utensils are spoons.

In Panel 59, “In the North they had the freedom to vote,” we see a line of black men and women waiting to cast their ballots, unconcerned by the white policeman standing next to the voting booth. The more history we bring to these paintings—whether of sharecropping, the Ku Klux Klan, or the poll tax—the fuller they become.

It’s an artistic strategy that is especially effective when Lawrence is at his most dramatic in a painting such as his famous Panel 15, “There were lynchings.” The subject is horrifying, but missing from Lawrence’s painting are the traditional elements of a lynching—a hanging black man and a white Southern mob. Instead, what we are shown in Panel 15 is a tree branch with a noose and a mourner. It’s up to us to put the images together and imagine what the mourner, whose back is to us, must have just witnessed.

For Lawrence, who spent World War II serving in the Coast Guard, The Migration Series was a powerful legacy to leave behind just as the ’40s were starting.

A decade later, the publication of Ralph Ellison’s debut novel, Invisible Man, provided yet another iteration of the African-American experience Lawrence had captured with his paintings. Ellison’s National Book Award-winning novel did for the great black migration from the South what John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) did for the much smaller (300,000) Dust Bowl migration of the ’20s and ’30s.

Ellison’s novel tells the story of a young African American (invisible in the eyes of the whites he encounters) who, after his high school graduation, migrates from the South to the North and along the way finds that those who would guide him rarely have his best interests at heart. From the president of the Tuskegee-like college he attends to the Northern philanthropist whom he thinks will give him a job, the Invisible Man discovers a world in which he is never seen as a whole person.

That experience is a shock for the Invisible Man, but he gains an early perspective on it soon after his arrival in Harlem when he buys a hot yam from a street vendor. Since arriving in the North, the Invisible Man has done everything in his power to shed his Southern past, but as he bites into the yam, a surge of homesickness overcomes him. He realizes that the richness of his life depends on his ability to draw on his Southern roots as well as the freedom he has found in the North, and in a moment of insight he puns, “I yam what I am.”

So it is with the unity of Lawrence’s Migration. The links, good and bad, between North and South are what give his art its richness and make the MoMA exhibit, which will travel to the Phillips Collection in 2016, such a rare occasion in our current era of racial turmoil.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.