Humanities 110

Introduction to the Humanities

Humanities 110—Moving the Perception of the Color Line: Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series”

Nathalia King David Eddings Professor of English and Humanities

MARCH 16, 2020

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This lecture was presented by Nathalia King, David Eddings Professor of English and Humanities, on March 16, 2020.

Jacob Lawrence was twenty-three years old and working in Harlem when he produced the “Migration Series” in 1940–41. In sixty 12" x 18" hardboard panels painted in tempera, Lawrence's project was to convey the causes for and the consequences of the Great Migration—one of the largest and fastest migrations in history, during which six million African Americans left the rural South for urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest (1916–1970). Lawrence renders the causes for migration (lynching, poverty, injustice, competition for jobs) partly in documentary style and partly through artistic abstraction but always in deeply felt images. Trauma, grief, fear, and violence are more often represented as psychological states than in graphic detail. The critical power of these images derives much from the use of reticence and understatement. As a series, Lawrence's work also overtly celebrates the possibility and promise of collective black action as it rises out of historical exigencies, independent of human leaders or divine directive.

For more information about the works as well as more historical context, see this comprehensive website on Lawrence’s work.