Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’ by Janet Son

1152w_0Jacob Lawrence was perhaps the most highly acclaimed African American artist of the twentieth century. Several of his paintings can be found in the collections of renowned art museums throughout America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is best known, however, for a group of sixty panels he created in 1941 titled the Migration Series. As a collective whole, the panels depict the exodus of African Americans from the South during and after World War I, along with the benefits and hardship they experienced after they arrived in the North.

Although Lawrence never lived in the South nor was part of the Great Migration himself, “the stories he heard while growing up […] afforded him an intimate picture of the South that he did not know from personal experience”[1]. His parents, for example, were part of the first wave of the Migration and met coming up north from Virginia and South Carolina. Historians now agree that the Great Migration was one of “the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history”[2]. Lorensen estimates that “between 1910 and 1970 approximately six and a half million African Americans left the South for a ‘Promised Land’ of mainly large urban centers—Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Pittsburgh, among others—where they could escape from the vicious cycles of the southern sharecropping economy and the legal and social strictures of Jim Crow”[3].

They made this journey primarily in search of economic freedom and social equality that could not be found in the South. The demand for factory workers in the North increased as European immigration diminished and white American men went off to World War I, causing a shortage of labour back home. Furthermore, in 1915, “drought, floods, and a boll weevil infestation […] destroyed crops and resulted in no harvests for two successive years”[4] making it even harder for African American workers to survive in an impoverished South. They also wanted to come north in order to escape from a harsh reality in which lynchings were common and exploitation of Blacks was frequent due to the Jim Crow laws. Thus, African Americans living in the South envisioned the North as a haven where they would be able to escape segregation and be economically self-sufficient, even though they found this not to be completely true once they arrived in the urban cities of the North.

Lawrence was already an established artist by the time he created the Migration Series and had previously steeped himself in knowledge of African American history. For his Migration Series, he chose to paint with tempera on hardboard. Lawrence described his style of art as “dynamic cubism” and placed an emphasis on movement in his paintings, as he “[equated] migration with movement”[5]. His figures are two-dimensional, geometric, and express a clear message. Lawrence also included a short description at the bottom of each panel in order to reiterate their individual importance. He chose to paint all sixty panels at once in order to unify them as being several parts of one single work, and in order to create colour consistency. Lawrence contrasted bright pigments with muted, dark shades in order to guide the viewer’s eyes towards specific areas of the panels that required attention. He may have also done this in order to show that despite the innumerable hardships African Americans faced in the North, they had access to opportunities and benefits that were nonexistent in the South. Despite their simplistic appearance, Lawrence’s works are highly sophisticated as they “[suggest] a single, narrative strain, uncomplicated by subtle variations of shade, light, or interpretation”[6].

Jacob-Lawrence-Migration-at-MoMA-SwipeLife-4In each individual panel, Lawrence documents a different aspect of African American life before and after making the migration north. The first half of the paintings depicts “day-to-day struggles with poverty, natural disasters, lack of educational opportunity, unjust courts, prejudicial law enforcement, segregation, and harsh and unfair treatment at the hands of employers and landowners”[7] – all parts of daily life for African Americans living in the rural South. Mixed in with these scenes of racial injustice are panels which show African Americans receiving letters from relatives who have moved up north telling them about how their lives have improved; communication served as the primary catalyst which caused the Migration to rapidly expand and increase in numbers.

The latter half of the panels shows the lives of African Americans after they have reached the North; they found jobs in industrial factories, were able to vote, and their children had access to better educational opportunities. However, Lawrence was also aware of the negative changes that came as a result of overpopulation in the cities. His very last panels deal with segregation, race riots, and the spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis. Lawrence did not aim to glorify the Great Migration, but to accurately “convey the energy and hopes of the migrants as well as their struggles”[8]. It is also worth noting that the series begins and ends with panels depicting African Americans leaving for the North in crowded train stations, emphasising the fact that the Great Migration was not a single historical event, but a process that took several years and involved millions of people from different backgrounds. Thus, the Migration Series is a collection of stories from these African Americans and their experiences in two different sides of America.

As a member of the younger generation living in Harlem, Lawrence was aware of Harlem’s status as the Black mecca of the North. Therefore, rather than carving out a definition of the New Negro as previous artists of the Harlem Renaissance had done, Lawrence reflected on the successes and hardships that the older generation had to face in order to create these opportunities for their children; thus, “the Migration Series is not a series of ‘history paintings,’ […] but […] a text of remembrance”[9].

[1] Jutta Lorensen, “Between Image and Word, Color and Time: Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series”, African American Review, 40.3 (2006), 571-586 (p. 572).

[2] Nicholas Lemann, Quoted in Ibid., p. 571.
[3] Ibid., p. 571.
[4] James D. Laney, “Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series: Art as Narrative History”, The Social Studies, 98.4 (2007), 131-134 (p. 132).

[5] Ibid., p. 132.
[6] Martha Jane Nadell, Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universtiy Press, 2004). p. 144.

[7] Laney, pp. 132.
[8] Jacqueline Francis, “The Make of the Modern”, Callaloo, 17.4 (1994), 1269-1272 (p. 1271).
[9] Lorensen, pp. 572.


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