Harlem on His Mind

In panel 31, a starkly minimal picture of three tenement buildings, Lawrence turns to life in the North. Then he abruptly returns to a scene of a crowded Southern railroad station. This is followed by a gut-wrenching picture of a woman reading a letter in bed while a child cries. The caption begins, "People who had not yet come North received letters from their relatives." Here Lawrence portrays the irreversible chasm that had opened up between the old and the so-called New Negro, between those who stayed behind and those who went north. In later works Lawrence dealt with the "disgust and aloofness" shown by Northern blacks toward Southern blacks.

Migration's final 11 panels deal with what was encountered in the North. In addition to a new life and jobs, there are images of discrimination, segregation, riots, bombings, and child labor. The series ends as it began, with a picture of a crowded railway station, with the caption, "And the migrants kept coming."

Searching for America itself: No. 40 and subsequent panels in The Migration of the Negro (1940–41) at the Whitney
photo: Robin Holland
Searching for America itself: No. 40 and subsequent panels in The Migration of the Negro (1940–41) at the Whitney

Details

Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through February 3

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The inventive way he responded to cubism—simplifying it, making it less formal and more accessible—coupled with the way he employed this sophisticated style to paint his own life and render the progress of a people, makes Lawrence the American Chagall. Both artists were giants, especially early on. Both were storytellers. Chagall painted his Jewish roots; Lawrence, the agony of the past and of building a future. Most of all, Lawrence gives form to the fathomless suffering and beauty James Baldwin wrote about in The Fire Next Time: "The Negro's past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life . . . ; this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful." Lawrence delivers this beauty whole.

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