What are the greatest achievements in American arts on the theme of migration? John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath comes to mind, as do Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant farm families. I would add Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series now on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In sixty small panel paintings, Lawrence narrates the movement of millions of African-Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North. This migration began in earnest during the First World War, when a shortage of workers in northern cities presented new employment opportunities for black Americans. The massive shift continued into the 1970s, but Lawrence created his series in 1940, just before the United States entered the Second World War, sparking another wave of northern migration. The series is thus a kind of hinge, representing past events that remained meaningful for another thirty years (and, in many cases, to our own time). It appeared when the achievements of African-American artists, musicians, and writers were receiving wider attention than ever before.
Migration Series was immediately seen as a major work, and in 1942 the panels were purchased by two institutions: MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Seeing the series together in one room is a rare event. At MoMA, smaller rooms surround the series, each one exploring a different context (literary, musical sociological) in which to consider and appreciate Lawrence’s multifaceted masterpiece.
Lawrence was a rising star in 1940. He had already created series of paintings that explored the lives of the hero of Haitian independence Toussaint L’Ouverture, the former slave turned writer and politician Frederick Douglass, and the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman. While his paintings show the influence of Cubism and other modern art movements, the strong narrative element present in his major works seems out of step with his more famous contemporaries. This may have more to do with the way museums and academics often tell the story of 20th-century art — highlighting champions of the abstract and geometric, downplaying those artists who overtly brought social and historical forces to bear on their art. As the exhibition thoughtfully shows, American audiences seem to expect narrative and social commentary from literature (like Steinbeck) or photography (like Lange), but less so in painting.
African-American writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were already exploring the theme of migration in their works, and Lawrence was reading and meeting these older writers. Indeed, the exhibition’s title, One-Way Ticket, is also the title of Hughes’s 1949 collection, for which Lawrence provided images: “I pick up my life / And take it away / On a one-way ticket—/Gone up North, / Gone out West, / Gone!” But Lawrence was also reading deeply into the history of African-American migration, regularly visiting the public library on 135th Street in Harlem.
Lawrence’s sixty images are presented in a small, rectangular room, each work about a foot apart from its neighbours. Images of the new migrants arriving in train stations and finding homes in the North alternate with those of family left behind in the South, reading letters from those gone, meeting to decide whether to follow. The similar scale of each painting and the limited palette dominated by brown, dark green, and ochre unite the images. Captions explicating or clarifying the image appear below each work. The exhibition uses Lawrence’s original 1941 captions rather than his revised 1993 version, where the language is tightened up, grammar standardised, and “Negro” becomes “migrant” or “African-American.”
The experience of reading and viewing evokes the experience of following the Stations of the Cross in a Catholic church, or seeing medieval images narrating the life of a saint. At the same time it calls to mind contemporary media, like books of photography that include a few lines of accompanying explication on each page (Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s 1941 Twelve Million Black Voices, on display in the exhibition, provides a good parallel), or the juxtaposition of images that was becoming a familiar element in cinema.
Two consecutive panels underline the importance of seeing the series together. Panel 6 represents the interior of a train carriage. People crowd every seat, covered in blankets and trying to sleep. One woman feeds her infant, her suitcase open in the aisle. The image is quite geometric, like three columns, a door at the end of the centre aisle column anticipating the end of the journey. The next image, Panel 7, is one of the most abstract in the series. It represents the rows of crops that the migrants have left behind—rows of green flames intercut by lines of brown and red that suggest the pathways between. But coming immediately after the carriage scene, it also conjures the movement of the train: those rows of seats have transformed into the view of a moving landscape, perhaps the view of a passenger who has stepped to the back to watch the southern landscape pass by.
Lawrence’s images of the North express the ambivalence of the migrant. These urban centers offered better food and better work in steel mills or railways, but migrants also experienced unhealthy living quarters and more subtle forms of racism: Panel 49 shows a restaurant separated into sections for white and black customers. The migrants also experienced race riots in the North, in part because African-Americans were used as strike breakers.
White people in the series range from befuddled (the judge in 14) to selfishly oblivious (the diners in 49) to ghoulish (the rioter in 50). But Lawrence also critiques the behavior of some African-Americans. Panel 53, showing a couple dressed for a night out in suit and furs, could commemorate the new, sophisticated culture developing in Harlem. But this celebratory tone is undercut by its caption: “The Negroes who had been North for quite some time met their fellowmen with disgust and aloofness.” Migration sometimes breeds contempt. Lawrence also alerts us to migration’s gender inequality: Panel 57, representing a solitary laundress in white stirring a great vat of colorful fabrics, notes that “The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South.”
But the overriding feeling created by Lawrence’s series is the excitement of movement and the inexorability of change. Like the survivors of the Dust Bowl, who left the Great Plains for the West Coast, African-Americans transformed their new homes in the North. Lawrence’s great achievement is to capture that phenomenon in all of its complexity, and to present it in an aesthetic style that is instantly recognizable as his own.
Later that day, I took (what else) the A train to Harlem. I reflected on my first trip to Harlem, sometime in the late 1980s, when my sister and I went to Sylvia’s for lunch on a Sunday. Walking the side streets, Harlem felt like a city unto itself rather than a Manhattan neighbourhood, a city with its own tempo and culture, like Amsterdam or New Orleans. This time I was struck by the familiarity of the new migrants in Harlem: the white, bearded hipster; the Asian or Scandinavian tourist; the couple from the Caribbean; all congregating at the Starbucks, or waiting in line (with me) at the Tropical Grill. It may be that some of Harlem’s uniqueness has been lost, but perhaps these latest residents and visitors will bring a new vitality to the neighbourhood. The title of Lawrence’s sixtieth painting kept ringing in my head: “And the migrants kept coming.”
One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works is at the MoMA in New York City until September 7, 2015.
Further Reading: The New Yorker recently wrote about the background to the Migration Series. You can also learn more about the life of Lawrence and his wife, artist Gwen Knight Lawrence, through the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Centre, which includes biographical information and teaching resources.
 Australian readers will think of Sydney Nolan’s great Ned Kelly series, also produced in the 1940s, but I cannot think of another major American artist who produced such a successful series.