Michael De SouzaProfessor MillerAfrican American Studies 20215 May 2016Economic Determinism and Ambition in the Migration Series by Jacob LawrenceThe Migration series by Jacob Lawrence is a sequence of sixty paintings (withcaptions) portraying the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South tocities in the North and West during the beginning of the twentieth century. The artistwas the child of African American migrants, and he grew up during the 1930s inHarlem, where he took art classes. In planning the series, Lawrence did a lot of libraryresearch on the history and causes of the migration. Reading the series from beginningto end, the viewer can see that he puts the fruits of his learning into the scenes andcaptions.
This paper explores how the series represents the causes of the GreatMigration. I argue that Lawrence shows several economic factors, such as difficultfarming conditions in the South and greater job opportunities in the North, as providingthe basis for the mass movement, but I also think that he shows hope and ambition asplaying an important role.First it might be helpful to discuss what historians say about the causes of theGreat Migration. Often they describe economic factors labeled “push” and “pull,” asexplained in an encyclopedia article: “The pull of labor shortages in northern industry De Souza 2and the lack of white male labor combined with the push of the devastation of thecotton crops so many blacks labored on by flood and boll weevils to create conditionsfor migration” (Adams 504). This is to say that migrants were pushed out of the Southand also pulled to the North and West by economic factors. The article goes on toexplain these factors more specifically. Migrants were influenced to migrate by laboragents, who were paid to visit southern towns to recruit workers for northern industry;by The Chicago Defender, a newspaper that was widely circulated throughout the Southand encouraged migration; and by kin networks, which sent word of opportunity in theNorth and helped migrants make the journey and get settled. But it is perhaps insultingto describe migrants only in terms of being pushed and pulled, since this descriptionmakes them look desperate and incapable of acting for themselves.
A historian namedJames Grossman disagrees with limiting description to “push” and “pull” factors.Discussing the views of American society during the migration, he says, “Public valuesrested upon the assumption that blacks were by nature docile, dependent, andunambitious” (38). But then he questions this view, saying that “the Great Migrationrepresented a refusal by one-half million black southerners to cooperate” with southernleaders (38-39). While it seems clear that economic factors played an important role inthe migration, we can see that African Americans refused to sit still and instead acted ontheir ambitions for a better life.As I mentioned, Lawrence was the child of migrants and grew up in Harlem. He De Souza 3had never visited the South when he completed the Migration series in 1941, but he wassurrounded by migrants and heard their stories throughout his childhood (Turner,Introduction).
Lawrence’s mother raised him and his brother and sister alone (sheseparated from Lawrence’s father when he was only seven years old Phillips 161). Likemany in Harlem during the Depression years, the family was poor. Despite poverty,Lawrence found strength from the community of African Americans. Lawrence spokeof the Harlem community, rather than a specific individual, as the inspiration for hisearly artistic ambition: “I was inspired by teachers, by librarians—everybody in thecommunity, I guess, was a role model, really. I didn’t have a special person that Ithought of—I didn’t think in those terms. It was the community that was my rolemodel” (Interview). Though economic and social problems pushed and pulled migrantsfrom the South to Harlem, African Americans also found themselves set apart by racialand economic divisions from the rest of New York City. In saying that the communitywas his role model, Lawrence emphasizes that group ambition on behalf of its membersis inspirational.
This message is central to the Migration series.We should not forget that the Migration series made a big impact when it wasfirst exhibited in 1941. It was part of the first major exhibit of African American art in adowntown New York gallery (Phillips 162). Part of his series was published in Fortunemagazine, and Lawrence sold the series in halves to two major museums before it wenton a national tour (163).
Why was it so popular? One art historian writes, “The series De Souza 4appealed broadly to critics and viewers alike because it embodied American idealsabout individual good fortune” (Patton 156). That is, individual panels showed hopefulactions by different African Americans. But it is interesting to notice that the series isdifferent from previous ones he painted, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman,which focused on a hero or heroine. Patricia Hills points this out, and she states that”the people as a whole—acting with a collective will—take on a heroic dimensionbeyond distinctions of class or gender” in the Migration series (146).
There is possibly atension between these two views. Lawrence’s series draws out some opposing termsdefining African American life, such as rural/urban, North/South, andindividual/society. If we examine one opposition, individual/society, we can see how theseries works as a story connecting different paintings.I think the beginning of the series helps us see how the oppositionindividual/society shapes the story (Turner, Jacob Lawrence, panels 1-4).
The first panelshows a crowd of African Americans in a train station; gates list destinations asChicago, New York, and Saint Louis. The next panel portrays a white man operatingmachinery, and the caption explains that there was a labor shortage in the North. Thethird panel shows a group of African Americans carrying luggage and walking together.The fourth panel shows a black man pounding a spike with a hammer, and its captionsays that African Americans were the remaining source of labor “after all others hadbeen exhausted.” So we can see a pattern: African American group, white individual, De Souza 5African American group, black individual (Hills also talks about this pattern 148).Although the pattern does not stay exactly this way throughout the series, the backand-forthbetween depictions of individuals and groups is pretty common. My point issimilar to this one in a scholarly article: “The narrative .
. . is not linear, but alternatesbetween the insistent portrayal of the dominant event in the plot—the actual physicaldisplacement of the people—and paintings dealing with the main causes of this massmigration” (Tribe 405). This quotation brings us back to the issue of causes, which Ithink is related to the opposition individual/society. When Lawrence depicts the causespushing African Americans out of the South (like lynching, child labor, injustice, anddiscrimination), he usually shows us only one person or a small group, like a family.
Some of the causes pulling migrants away from the South (labor agents, letters fromkin) also are shown having their effect on individuals or small groups. But when heshows us scenes of actual migration, he paints groups walking, in train stations, or ontrains. So we can see how the opposition individual/society shapes the way he tells hisstory.
There is evidence that the relationship between individual and society isimportant to the development of Lawrence’s style. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an importantscholar of African American culture, emphasizes the role of the individual in twoartistic movements:Lawrence’s Migration series is an attempt to resolve the two central competing De Souza 6modes of representation in the African American tradition that clashed andstruggled for dominance in the 1920s and 1930s: a naturalism that sought toreveal how individual “choice” was always shaped and curtailed byenvironmental forces and a modernism that sought to chart the relation of theindividual will to the chaotic environment. (17)It is interesting to think about what Gates says and compare it to the idea of the “push”and “pull” causes for the migration. These causes can be seen as “environmental forces”that make people do things (like migrate) even when they might think they are makinga choice. Gates also mentions the “individual will” that resists the environment.
I thinkwhat he is saying is that Lawrence shows a tension between economic determinism andfree will in his art, which would be like a mixture of naturalism and modernism. But Ithink we could also say that determinism affects the individual and free will is anexpression of the group, at least if we follow the pattern of the opposition betweenindividual and society I talked about in the previous paragraph.I do not want to neglect the importance of Lawrence’s choice of materials andartistic process on his art. I mentioned that Lawrence was poor, so his choice ofmaterials was limited mostly by what he could afford.
When he was a young artstudent, Lawrence said, he chose poster paint and cheap brown paper for his artsupplies. He later spoke of the choice: “It was tough, strong, durable . . . and, eh, a jar ofcolor—red, yellow, blue, the primary colors—were, like, fifteen cents a jar at the five-De Souza 7and-dime, so I was dealing with very inexpensive material. And it suited me—itbenefited me” (Jacob Lawrence).
Lawrence continued to use these cheap supplies evenafter he became famous and probably could afford better ones. We might see the use ofcheap materials as a kind of economic determinism, forcing him to create with verylimited means.For the Migration series, Lawrence first did library research so he couldunderstand his subject. He wrote the captions (which make up part of the story), andthen he outlined each panel with pencil (Steele 248). His compositions do not often usetraditional three-dimensional perspective. The style of the series exhibits what EllenHarkins Wheat calls “cubist angularity” (62).
What is most interesting is the way hepainted the series (Steele 250). He started with black and painted the black parts in all ofthe panels. He continued through the palette from the darkest to the lightest paints,painting each color on every panel before moving on to the next color.
Some see hisprocess as creating a unity among the individual panels. Jutta Lorensen, for example,refers to his palette as the “migration colors,” and she explains its effect: “Lawrence’scolor code is a repetitive mode that accompanies the viewer/reader from the first panelto the last, as the same shades of green, red, yellow, blue, brown, and an incisive use ofblack are present throughout the entire series” (576). She shows how this works in herinterpretation of panel 6, which shows a train car filled with sleeping migrants: “eachbench unites two voyagers through the migration colors, thus reinforcing the De Souza 8resounding note of the communal, a prevalent theme in the Migration Series. Thecomposition of this ‘packed train’ with its appeal to collectivity nevertheless emphasizeswhat is single and singular: a woman in a yellow dress nursing a child” (577). Lawrencewas forced by economic circumstances to use cheap materials and just a few colors. Wecan see a parallel with the plight of African Americans, who were forced by poverty andsocial conditions to a limited range of jobs.
Lawrence seems to be saying that even whenfaced with economic determinism, African Americans can find a way to expresspersonal hope and a collective spirit of ambition and resolve.Fig. 1. A panel in the series showing a group of migrants walking together (Turner, JacobLawrence, panel 3).De Souza 9I already discussed some panels that show causes of migration (usuallyindividuals), and I mentioned that the panels that depict migration usually showgroups.
I want to say something more about how hope or ambition is represented insome parts of the series. One of the best-known images in the series (see fig. 1) shows agroup of migrants with their luggage walking in profile from right to left; birds in thesky are also shown in profile moving in the same direction, as if all were moving northat the start of a hopeful spring. The viewer can see that some of the individuals in thepanels have their heads down, while others are looking forward or even up. Nearlyeveryone has some luggage, but the burdens do not seem to be dragging them down.The group has momentum. There is a bright yellow package toward the front of thegroup, and a woman holding a baby is brightly clothed, symbolizing that hope for thenext generation is present.
The landscape in the background is brown and bare, but thebirds are coming with the migrants. I think it is a hopeful panel that shows thateveryone in the group is strong and determined to “go North,” as the caption says. Hefeatures children in other panels, like number 32, where a child in white and red clothessits on luggage facing the viewer and a crowd of black travelers waiting on benches(Lawrence prepared a similar image as an illustration in a book of poems by LangstonHughes Lawrence, One-Way Ticket 63). Then there is an image like panel 46, whichshows a staircase ascending from the viewer to an open doorway revealing sky and themoon. The caption talks about unhygienic housing in the labor camps, but the image De Souza 10gives the sense that hope is on the other end of the stairs (at least we are looking up tothe outside, not down to the cellar). Stairways figure prominently in Lawrence’s art. Asone scholar has noted, “Lawrence’s use of steps is a visual Morse code tapping out amessage having to do with ascension and climbing” (Powell).
As a contrast to panelsdepicting economic or social forces pushing and pulling the migrants, Lawrence offersmany panels that show hope for those who are ambitious enough to make the journey.In conclusion, I think that Jacob Lawrence understood the economiccircumstances that pushed African Americans from the South and pulled them to theNorth, and he represented many of these factors in his Migration series. He understoodthem in part because his family lived them, and he knew other African Americans withsimilar experiences while he grew up in Harlem during the Depression years. He didnot see his community as total victims, however. He represents the Great Migration as ahopeful expression of his group’s will for a better life.
You can also see this belief in howhe handles his artistic process. Using inexpensive materials and only a few colors, hepainted a series that spoke to his community’s hopes and dreams and brought nationalattention to his artistic achievement