The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of the Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, may be the single best account of one of the most significant yet poorly understood transformations of the 20th century. During the Great Migration, some 6 million African-Americans left the South for the industrial Northeast and Midwest, as well as cities in the West. They were not economic migrants, Wilkerson explains; not exclusively, anyway. Her book shows that blacks who left the South were political refugees, fleeing the state-sanctioned terrorism of white supremacy, albeit without leaving one country for another.
After its publication in 2010, Wilkerson’s book was quickly greeted as both the authoritative history of the Great Migration and the most creative telling in nearly 70 years. (The Warmth of Other Suns closely follows three black migrants of varied backgrounds as they depart the South for Chicago, New York, and California over three different decades.) The book is required reading for understanding an even more elegant depiction of the Great Migration: Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” (1940–41).
Time to get reading. For the next two years, the two museums that each own half of the 60 panels that make up the “The Migration Series” will take turns displaying the entire sequence. On April 3, for the first time in 20 years, the Museum of Modern Art, owner of the even-numbered panels, will reassemble Lawrence’s complete cycle. The sequence will travel to the Phillips Collection, steward of the odd-numbered paintings, in 2016.
“The Migration Series,” or as Lawrence originally titled it, “The Migration of the Negro,” comprises all five dozen modernist panels. The achingly simple paintings deliver a complete narrative; a literal caption appends each panel (e.g. “Panel No. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north”). The cadence of paintings and captions makes “The Migration Series” read like a haunting children’s book.
Wilkerson herself told the New York Times that “The Migration Series” is one of the first introductions most people get to the Great Migration. “Because it’s so big and so embedded in who we are, it’s hard to see,” she told the paper in December. “There’s so much to study—it’s almost like studying 20th-century culture itself.”
That’s part of what makes “The Migration Series” a stunning achievement: It conveys such enormity through such simple gestures. Frequently, Lawrence’s compositions are divided into fields or planes of three. The compositional harmony throughout helps to establish the cycle’s rhythm.
Panel No. 5 (“Migrants were advanced passage on the railroads, paid for by northern industry. Northern industry was to be repaid by the migrants out of their future wages”), a painting of a train traveling by nightfall, a plume of black smoke rising in the air, is as simple as an Arthur Dove landscape. Panel No. 31 (“The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north”) depicts three housing tenement buildings, rendered as flat planes of somber tempera punctuated by blocks of color representing lighted windows—a Harlem abstraction on city life.
Lawrence created his cycle without the benefit of hindsight—indeed, he had never been to the South when he painted the series. (Lawrence was painting during the second wave of the Great Migration; his parents had come north, from Virginia and South Carolina, during the first.) While the “Migration Series” paintings owned by the Phillips Collection will soon be joined with their counterparts in New York, for now, they can still be seen in special exhibit in D.C. The panels are on view alongside works from a follow-up series, which was meant to be another 60-panel cycle (but ended at 30), painted by Lawrence in 1954–56. “Struggle… From the History of the American People” cannot be seen in its entirety: At the time of Lawrence’s painting, his benefactors did not have the foresight to ensure that the parts of the collection would stay together. Two of the panels are lost to history.
The collection itself is not all that’s fractured about the “Struggle” series. Painting in a more mature mode of “dynamic cubism” (his term for his style), Lawrence depicts scenes of war and resistance, from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812. In the 12 panels on view at the Phillips, the compositions are dominated by shards, representing the violence of bayonets, the cut of military uniforms, and the upraised arms of colonists, slaves, indigenous people, and imperialists.
The “Struggle” series was a bizarre choice for Lawrence. In the upheaval that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the artist retreated into safer territory. While “The Migration Series” represented a brave and forward-looking patriotism, a telling of an invisible history, the “Struggle” series indulged in nostalgia. (But not jingoism: Lawrence’s Revolutionary America did not overlook the experience of slaves.)
It is unreasonable for today’s viewers to hold Lawrence to task for not painting to the themes we might have wished a lyricist of his caliber to choose instead of the colonies. After all, he might have easily followed the European-focused painters of his day and pursued a different kind of abstraction entirely. Nevertheless, seeing works from these cycles side by side, it is hard not to dwell on the gulf between them.
Part of the delight in seeing “The Migration Series” is that the history of the Great Migration, even a century later, is still not a thing we can wrap our heads around. And yet Lawrence understood it as it was happening. Before Wilkerson’s complete history arrived, seeing “The Migration Series” might have been the best depiction of the magnitude of the movement. Lawrence held up a lamp to real experience and captured it faithfully. As a work of art, it is a piece of history.
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