Michael De Souza
Professor Miller
African American Studies 202
15 May 2016
Economic Determinism and Ambition in the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence
The Migration series by Jacob Lawrence is a sequence of sixty paintings (with
captions) portraying the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to
cities in the North and West during the beginning of the twentieth century. The artist
was the child of African American migrants, and he grew up during the 1930s in
Harlem, where he took art classes. In planning the series, Lawrence did a lot of library
research on the history and causes of the migration. Reading the series from beginning
to end, the viewer can see that he puts the fruits of his learning into the scenes and
captions. This paper explores how the series represents the causes of the Great
Migration. I argue that Lawrence shows several economic factors, such as difficult
farming conditions in the South and greater job opportunities in the North, as providing
the basis for the mass movement, but I also think that he shows hope and ambition as
playing an important role.
First it might be helpful to discuss what historians say about the causes of the
Great Migration. Often they describe economic factors labeled “push” and “pull,” as
explained in an encyclopedia article: “The pull of labor shortages in northern industry
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and the lack of white male labor combined with the push of the devastation of the
cotton crops so many blacks labored on by flood and boll weevils to create conditions
for migration” (Adams 504). This is to say that migrants were pushed out of the South
and also pulled to the North and West by economic factors. The article goes on to
explain these factors more specifically. Migrants were influenced to migrate by labor
agents, 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 South
and encouraged migration; and by kin networks, which sent word of opportunity in the
North and helped migrants make the journey and get settled. But it is perhaps insulting
to describe migrants only in terms of being pushed and pulled, since this description
makes them look desperate and incapable of acting for themselves. A historian named
James Grossman disagrees with limiting description to “push” and “pull” factors.
Discussing the views of American society during the migration, he says, “Public values
rested upon the assumption that blacks were by nature docile, dependent, and
unambitious” (38). But then he questions this view, saying that “the Great Migration
represented a refusal by one-half million black southerners to cooperate” with southern
leaders (38-39). While it seems clear that economic factors played an important role in
the migration, we can see that African Americans refused to sit still and instead acted on
their ambitions for a better life.
As I mentioned, Lawrence was the child of migrants and grew up in Harlem. He
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had never visited the South when he completed the Migration series in 1941, but he was
surrounded by migrants and heard their stories throughout his childhood (Turner,
Introduction). Lawrence’s mother raised him and his brother and sister alone (she
separated from Lawrence’s father when he was only seven years old Phillips 161). Like
many in Harlem during the Depression years, the family was poor. Despite poverty,
Lawrence found strength from the community of African Americans. Lawrence spoke
of the Harlem community, rather than a specific individual, as the inspiration for his
early artistic ambition: “I was inspired by teachers, by librarians—everybody in the
community, I guess, was a role model, really. I didn’t have a special person that I
thought of—I didn’t think in those terms. It was the community that was my role
model” (Interview). Though economic and social problems pushed and pulled migrants
from the South to Harlem, African Americans also found themselves set apart by racial
and economic divisions from the rest of New York City. In saying that the community
was his role model, Lawrence emphasizes that group ambition on behalf of its members
is inspirational. This message is central to the Migration series.
We should not forget that the Migration series made a big impact when it was
first exhibited in 1941. It was part of the first major exhibit of African American art in a
downtown New York gallery (Phillips 162). Part of his series was published in Fortune
magazine, and Lawrence sold the series in halves to two major museums before it went
on a national tour (163). Why was it so popular? One art historian writes, “The series
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appealed broadly to critics and viewers alike because it embodied American ideals
about individual good fortune” (Patton 156). That is, individual panels showed hopeful
actions by different African Americans. But it is interesting to notice that the series is
different 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 dimension
beyond distinctions of class or gender” in the Migration series (146). There is possibly a
tension between these two views. Lawrence’s series draws out some opposing terms
defining African American life, such as rural/urban, North/South, and
individual/society. If we examine one opposition, individual/society, we can see how the
series works as a story connecting different paintings.
I think the beginning of the series helps us see how the opposition
individual/society shapes the story (Turner, Jacob Lawrence, panels 1-4). The first panel
shows a crowd of African Americans in a train station; gates list destinations as
Chicago, New York, and Saint Louis. The next panel portrays a white man operating
machinery, and the caption explains that there was a labor shortage in the North. The
third 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 caption
says that African Americans were the remaining source of labor “after all others had
been exhausted.” So we can see a pattern: African American group, white individual,
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African 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-forth
between depictions of individuals and groups is pretty common. My point is
similar to this one in a scholarly article: “The narrative . . . is not linear, but alternates
between the insistent portrayal of the dominant event in the plot—the actual physical
displacement of the people—and paintings dealing with the main causes of this mass
migration” (Tribe 405). This quotation brings us back to the issue of causes, which I
think is related to the opposition individual/society. When Lawrence depicts the causes
pushing African Americans out of the South (like lynching, child labor, injustice, and
discrimination), 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 from
kin) also are shown having their effect on individuals or small groups. But when he
shows us scenes of actual migration, he paints groups walking, in train stations, or on
trains. So we can see how the opposition individual/society shapes the way he tells his
There is evidence that the relationship between individual and society is
important to the development of Lawrence’s style. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an important
scholar of African American culture, emphasizes the role of the individual in two
artistic movements:
Lawrence’s Migration series is an attempt to resolve the two central competing
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modes of representation in the African American tradition that clashed and
struggled for dominance in the 1920s and 1930s: a naturalism that sought to
reveal how individual “choice” was always shaped and curtailed by
environmental forces and a modernism that sought to chart the relation of the
individual 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 making
a choice. Gates also mentions the “individual will” that resists the environment. I think
what he is saying is that Lawrence shows a tension between economic determinism and
free will in his art, which would be like a mixture of naturalism and modernism. But I
think we could also say that determinism affects the individual and free will is an
expression of the group, at least if we follow the pattern of the opposition between
individual and society I talked about in the previous paragraph.
I do not want to neglect the importance of Lawrence’s choice of materials and
artistic process on his art. I mentioned that Lawrence was poor, so his choice of
materials was limited mostly by what he could afford. When he was a young art
student, Lawrence said, he chose poster paint and cheap brown paper for his art
supplies. He later spoke of the choice: “It was tough, strong, durable . . . and, eh, a jar of
color—red, yellow, blue, the primary colors—were, like, fifteen cents a jar at the five-
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and-dime, so I was dealing with very inexpensive material. And it suited me—it
benefited me” (Jacob Lawrence). Lawrence continued to use these cheap supplies even
after he became famous and probably could afford better ones. We might see the use of
cheap materials as a kind of economic determinism, forcing him to create with very
limited means.
For the Migration series, Lawrence first did library research so he could
understand his subject. He wrote the captions (which make up part of the story), and
then he outlined each panel with pencil (Steele 248). His compositions do not often use
traditional three-dimensional perspective. The style of the series exhibits what Ellen
Harkins Wheat calls “cubist angularity” (62). What is most interesting is the way he
painted the series (Steele 250). He started with black and painted the black parts in all of
the 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 his
process 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’s
color code is a repetitive mode that accompanies the viewer/reader from the first panel
to the last, as the same shades of green, red, yellow, blue, brown, and an incisive use of
black are present throughout the entire series” (576). She shows how this works in her
interpretation of panel 6, which shows a train car filled with sleeping migrants: “each
bench unites two voyagers through the migration colors, thus reinforcing the
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resounding note of the communal, a prevalent theme in the Migration Series. The
composition of this ‘packed train’ with its appeal to collectivity nevertheless emphasizes
what is single and singular: a woman in a yellow dress nursing a child” (577). Lawrence
was forced by economic circumstances to use cheap materials and just a few colors. We
can see a parallel with the plight of African Americans, who were forced by poverty and
social conditions to a limited range of jobs. Lawrence seems to be saying that even when
faced with economic determinism, African Americans can find a way to express
personal hope and a collective spirit of ambition and resolve.
Fig. 1. A panel in the series showing a group of migrants walking together (Turner, Jacob
Lawrence, panel 3).
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I already discussed some panels that show causes of migration (usually
individuals), and I mentioned that the panels that depict migration usually show
groups. I want to say something more about how hope or ambition is represented in
some parts of the series. One of the best-known images in the series (see fig. 1) shows a
group of migrants with their luggage walking in profile from right to left; birds in the
sky are also shown in profile moving in the same direction, as if all were moving north
at the start of a hopeful spring. The viewer can see that some of the individuals in the
panels have their heads down, while others are looking forward or even up. Nearly
everyone 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 the
group, and a woman holding a baby is brightly clothed, symbolizing that hope for the
next generation is present. The landscape in the background is brown and bare, but the
birds are coming with the migrants. I think it is a hopeful panel that shows that
everyone in the group is strong and determined to “go North,” as the caption says. He
features children in other panels, like number 32, where a child in white and red clothes
sits 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 Langston
Hughes Lawrence, One-Way Ticket 63). Then there is an image like panel 46, which
shows a staircase ascending from the viewer to an open doorway revealing sky and the
moon. The caption talks about unhygienic housing in the labor camps, but the image
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gives the sense that hope is on the other end of the stairs (at least we are looking up to
the outside, not down to the cellar). Stairways figure prominently in Lawrence’s art. As
one scholar has noted, “Lawrence’s use of steps is a visual Morse code tapping out a
message having to do with ascension and climbing” (Powell). As a contrast to panels
depicting economic or social forces pushing and pulling the migrants, Lawrence offers
many panels that show hope for those who are ambitious enough to make the journey.
In conclusion, I think that Jacob Lawrence understood the economic
circumstances that pushed African Americans from the South and pulled them to the
North, and he represented many of these factors in his Migration series. He understood
them in part because his family lived them, and he knew other African Americans with
similar experiences while he grew up in Harlem during the Depression years. He did
not see his community as total victims, however. He represents the Great Migration as a
hopeful expression of his group’s will for a better life. You can also see this belief in how
he handles his artistic process. Using inexpensive materials and only a few colors, he
painted a series that spoke to his community’s hopes and dreams and brought national
attention to his artistic achievement