Beginning in 1915, some six million black African Americans from the South joined an exodus to the northern cities – Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and many others. This was the Great Migration. It was the result both of the conditions in which African Americans found themselves in the South and the labour needs of Northern employers.
After post-Civil War Reconstruction, white supremacy had largely been restored across the South, enforced though the Jim Crow laws. It was a segregated world, in which blacks were denied they most basic of rights from votes to education, a world of oppression, terror and unremitting poverty. Meanwhile, the First World War had created a shortage of labour in Northern cities as European immigration came to an end. Labour shortage was made more acute by war production. So Northern employers looked to the South for labour. By 1920, the black population of Detroit had increased by 611 per cent, that of Philadelphia by 500 per cent. It was a migration that was to transform America.
No artist has better depicted the Great Migration, and its existential impact, than Jacob Lawrence, one of America’s great twentieth century painters, though one who has rarely received great public recognition. Born in 1917 in the North – in Atlantic City, New Jersey – Lawrence was nevertheless in many ways a product of the Great Migration. The Great Migration transformed not just America’s demography but its political and cultural consciousness too, from the reconfiguration of blues and jazz – it was out of that exodus that Chicago blues and bebop emerged – to the remaking of American literature, through the works of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and countless others. Central to all this was the Harlem Renaissance, the literary, artistic, and intellectual movement of the 1920s and 30s that helped kindle a new black cultural identity. It was, as the critic and writer, and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Alan Locke, put it, the ‘spiritual coming of age’ of the black community.
Lawrence, who lived in Harlem from the age of 23, and attended the Harlem Art Workshop, was deeply shaped by these changes. Lawrence’s significance was to take the forms of European modernism – his debt to Picasso and to Matisse is particularly evident – and to reshape them to speak to the experiences both of America as a nation and of African Americans specifically. In his American Visions: The Epic History of American Art, the art critic Robert Hughes, notes perceptively of Lawrence:
Younger than the artists and writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Lawrence was also at an angle to them: he was not interested in the kind of idealized, fake-primitive images of blacks – the Noble Negroes in Art Deco guise – that tended to be produced as an antidote to the toxic racist stereotypes with which white popular culture had flooded America since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, he gained self-confidence from the Harlem cultural milieu – in particular, from the art critic Alain Locke, a Harvard-trained esthete (and America’s first black Rhodes scholar) 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 powers, of modernism. Or, in Locke’s own words, ‘There is in truly great art no essential conflict between racial or national traits and universal human values.’ This would not sit well with today’s American cultural separatists who trumpet about the incompatibility of American experiences – ‘It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand’- but it was vital to Lawrence’s own growth as an artist.
Or, as Lawrence himself put it, ‘I do not look upon the story of the Blacks in America as a separate experience to the American culture but as a part of the American heritage and experience as a whole.’
Lawrence’s most famous work was a sequence of 60 panels depicting the Great Migration. It was commissioned in 1940 by the Rosenwald Foundation and completed over the following two years. It is, in its own way, as much a work of historical memory as of art. Lawrence spent months ensconced in the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, New York’s principal archive on African-American life and history. The paintings are, however, more than simply an act of remembrance. ‘I don’t think in terms of history about that series’, Lawrence observed. ‘I think in terms of contemporary life. It was such a part of me that I didn’t think of something outside. It was like I was doing a portrait of something. If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers.’
Again, Robert Hughes is perceptive about Lawrence’s method:
The series is notable for the language it does not use. Lawrence was not a propagandist. He eschewed the caricatural apparatus of Popular Front Social Realism, then at its high tide in America. Considering the violence and pathos of so much of his subject matter – prisons, deserted villages, city slums, race riots, labor camps – his images are restrained, and all the more piercing for their lack of bombast. When he painted a lynching, for instance, he left 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. He set aside the influence of Rivera and the Mexican muralists, which lay so heavily on other artists; he wasn’t painting murals, but images closer in size to single pages, 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. Migration is a visual ballad, each image a stanza, compressed, like the blues, to the minimum needs of narration. Number 10, ‘They were very poor’, pares the elements of a black sharecropper’s life down to the least common denominator: 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 you imagine in a crucifixion. There isn’t a trace of the sentimentality that coats Picasso’s Blue Period, or the work of most American Social Realists.
The 60 panels of the Great Migration series were eventually divided between the Phillips Collection in Washington and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (bizarrely, perhaps, Phillips took the odd-numbered paintings, MoMA the even-numbered ones). Next year, on the centenary of the start of the Great Migration, all 60 panels will be reunited, first in an exhibition at MoMA and then in the Phillips Collection in 2016. And over the next few weeks, I will publish on Pandaemonium the complete sequence of 60 panels, ten at a time, together with Lawrence’s original captions, that are as much part of the series as are the paintings themselves.
During the World War there was a great migration North
by Southern Negroes
The World War had caused a great shortage
in Northern industry and also citizens of foreign countries
were returning home.
In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds
to go North and enter into Northern industry.
The Negro was the largest source of labor to be found
after all others had been exhausted.
The Negroes were given free passage on the railroads
which was paid back by Northern industry.
It was an agreement that the people brought North
on these railroads were to pay back their passage
after they had received jobs.
The trains were packed continually with migrants.
The Negro, who had been part of the soil for many years,
was now going into and living a new life
in the urban centers.
They did not always leave
because they were promised work in the North.
Many of them left because of Southern conditions,
one of them being great floods that ruined the crops,
and therefore they were unable
to make a living where they were.
Another great ravager of the crops was the boll weevil.
I remember seeing an exhibition of some of the panels at the Whitney a number of years ago. I’m very excited that they will all be shown together at MOMA.
The quote from Alain Locke by Robert Hughes reminds me of the more formative moments in my life. A group I was involved with in high school brought Douglas Turner Ward of the Negro Ensemble Company to speak at our school. A white man in the audience asked one of those questions that I thought was stupid and obnoxious when he asked it. With a smug tone, he asked if Ward dealt solely with the experiences of African Americans was he in fact excluding whites and anyone else who is not African American. Despite the fact that the question was plainly asked to annoy the speaker, Ward answered it very straightforwardly. He said that universality can only be achieved through specificity. I was only about fourteen or fifteen at the time, so that struck me as profound and has always stayed with me.