Harlem on His Mind


It is sad but not surprising that the tastemakers currently touting Norman Rockwell as “a master of narrative” and “an artist who speaks to all people” ignore a contemporary of Rockwell’s whose work better embodies these qualities. That artist is Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), now the subject of a probing, occasionally soaring, retrospective at the Whitney.

To understand why Lawrence is richer than Rockwell, you need only spend time in the gallery containing his great narrative masterpiece, the 60-panel Migration of the Negro. Unlike Rockwell’s “feel-good” pictures, Migration tells a story with real implications for all Americans.

Step by step—in alternately bright and dull tempera colors, angular compositions, tilting perspectives, blocky cubistic forms, and flat shapes—Lawrence delineates the largest, most consequential exodus in our history. His subject is the nation-changing flight that took place in the first decades of the 20th century, the journey of more than a million blacks (many the children of slaves, many former slaves themselves) from South to North—from what was understood to be the scene of the crime to a hoped-for Promised Land. This mass movement marked the transition from rural to urban, agrarian to industrial, and a people’s search for America itself.

Migration tells that desperate story movingly and with a sense of vivacious, almost levitating pictorial flair. Lawrence’s colors are flat-footed yet brassy; he loves deploying patches of bright yellow and off-orange across his surfaces, and interspersing these with murky, muddy greens and browns. The look of his work is at once crude and deft. None of the individual paintings in Migration are bigger than a clipboard, yet it has an emotional resonance akin to that of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and is the equal of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in its depiction of oppression, misery, and hope.

All you need to know about the making of Migration, other than that Lawrence worked on all the panels simultaneously and completed them at the precocious age of 23, is that the artist lived it. By the time he was 13, when his Virginia-born mother moved him and his family to West 143rd Street in Harlem, Lawrence had lived in three cities. When he completed Migration in 1941, he’d already executed multipaneled paintings depicting the lives of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture (unfortunately, none of these series are on view at the Whitney). Migration is one of those rare, mature-on-arrival showpieces, a bit like Jasper Johns’s first flag painting, completed when he was only 25. As with Johns and his flag, Lawrence and Migration arrived with a bang. In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art and Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection each bought 30 panels (for a total cost of $2000); he became the first black artist represented by a prestigious New York gallery (the Downtown Gallery, which also exhibited Stuart Davis and Charles Sheeler); and Migration was sent on a 15-city national tour.

Before confronting the cannon shot of Migration, linger in the first gallery, which contains 16 small early works. These images, painted between 1936 and 1938, combine the veracity of street photography with the imagination of great storytelling. None of his subjects have been heroicized, yet the pictures exude a sense of the heroism of everyday life in Harlem. We see peddlers, beggars, and brothels, a haughty black couple hurrying past a funeral, a mother greeted on tenement stairs by her jubilant children, and a prostitute beckoning to a nervous white customer. The image of three proper black ladies riding on an otherwise empty subway (the white folks having gotten off further downtown) is as heartbreaking as it is accusatory. The women carry shopping bags and slump from exhaustion, having presumably come from work. The emptiness of the car says it all: Ultimately, the Promised Land was elusive.

As for Migration, the first panel is a harbinger. A throng crowds through three open rail-station gates marked Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. The caption is didactic and direct: “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.” The scene is all tumult. No faces are discernible, which suggests that this migration also marks the beginning of the journey from being isolated individuals to becoming a people. As LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) put it in Blues People, “The Negro as slave is one thing. The Negro as American is quite another.”

The second panel, depicting a bulldozer and a crane, shows what the migrants came for: jobs. The third returns to the migration itself. We see another crowd, many with duffel bags and suitcases, all hurrying under a streaky sky. Even the birds in this picture seem to flee. A few panels on, Lawrence paints a locomotive hurtling through the night. The next image shows a passenger car crammed with migrants. The opening stanza of Langston Hughes’s 1948 poem “One-Way Ticket” echoes throughout Migration: “I pick up my life/And take it with me/And I put it down in/Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Scranton/Any place that is North and East/And not Dixie.”

Lawrence is the master of “not Dixie.” In the following panels, he lays out his indictment of the South: sun-scorched fields, ravaged crops, flooded farms, shotgun shacks, and crushing poverty, prisoners in handcuffs, a fat white judge staring down two blacks, and finally, a hangman’s noose. An understated caption begins, “Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time to leave.” “Opportune,” indeed.

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.”

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.