Painting The 'Epic Drama' Of The Great Migration: The Work Of Jacob Lawrence : Code Switch A rare exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art features 60 of Lawrence's paintings about the journey of 6 million African-Americans, who fled the segregated South during the Great Migration.
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Painting The 'Epic Drama' Of The Great Migration: The Work Of Jacob Lawrence

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Painting The 'Epic Drama' Of The Great Migration: The Work Of Jacob Lawrence

Painting The 'Epic Drama' Of The Great Migration: The Work Of Jacob Lawrence

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

An exhibition by a giant in African-American art has opened in New York City. Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series of 60 paintings is co-owned by two museums, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The paintings are together this spring, anchoring a new multimedia show at MOMA. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has this story about the artist and the history behind those works.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: There's no historical marker in Harlem outside of Jacob Lawrence's childhood home.

Is this the block?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: This is the block, so we are almost there. It's on this side of the street.

WANG: But Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has an idea of what it might say.

MUHAMMAD: Here lived one the 20th century's most influential visual artists, a man named Jacob Lawrence, who was a child of Southern migrants.

WANG: Born in 1917, his father was a cook from South Carolina and his mother, a domestic worker from Virginia. Both headed north to start a better life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NORTHBOUND BLUES")

MAGGIE JONES: (Singing) I'm going north, child, where I can be free.

WANG: This 1925 song by Maggie Jones, "Northbound Blues," is one of many paired online with the Museum of Modern Art's gallery exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's work. Jones sings about about the Jim Crow laws that codified racial inequality in the South. They helped to drive Lawrence's parents to leave a Southern world that he barely knew, as he recalled in the 1993 documentary, "Jacob Lawrence And The Making Of The Migration Series."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JACOB LAWRENCE AND THE MAKING OF THE MIGRATION SERIES")

JACOB LAWRENCE: I had never seen a boll weevil. I'd never seen cotton. So I was far removed from the culture I knew, but yet I was very close to it.

WANG: That's because his family and many of his neighbors in Harlem were among the 6 million Southern blacks who fled to cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago from 1915 to the 1970s. Along the way, they transformed the music, demographics and politics of the places they went, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad explains.

MUHAMMAD: They were not only heroic in their courage to leave a godforsaken place for a better place, but also that they were going to challenge that new place to live up to its own possibilities.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Eventually, these people would become the advanced guard of what we now know to be the civil rights movement.

WANG: Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote about great migration in "The Warmth Of Other Suns," says the mass movement was a turning point in U.S. history that was overlooked for decades.

WILKERSON: There are many, many children and grandchildren of the Great Migration who did not hear this directly from their own families. Because it went on for so long, it was often hard to see. And I think one of the people who could see it all along was Jacob Lawrence.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JACOB LAWRENCE AND THE MAKING OF THE MIGRATION SERIES")

LAWRENCE: I wanted to create a work that was very sparse. You'd see it immediately. It's a long, arduous ride from where these people came.

WANG: Jacob Lawrence finished the 60 paintings in his Migration Series in 1941. He used brightly colored tempera paint to show families waiting with luggage, sleeping in train cars and other moments from their journey north. The exhibition at MOMA also highlights the work of other artists tied to the great migration, like Josh White's 1941 protest song, "Jim Crow Train."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JIM CROW TRAIN")

JOSH WHITE: (Singing) Can't you hear that train whistle blow? Can't you hear that train whistle blow? Can't you hear that train whistle blow?

LEAH DICKERMAN: So of the 60 panels, I'd say 16 or so have images of train stations or train tracks or train cars.

WANG: Leah Dickerman, the show's curator, says spliced between those images are scenes of violence and poverty in the South. In one, a figure in red huddles near a noose hanging from a tree limb. In another, bare-chested children haul woven baskets of cotton. But Dickerman says panels about life outside of the South don't show a promised land either.

DICKERMAN: It isn't a utopian image. He also addresses the kinds of racism and disappointments that migrants found when they actually got to the North.

WANG: Like the white-led race riots in the black neighborhoods of East St. Louis, Chicago and other cities as the migrants began to arrive, the cramped quarters in urban tenement houses and the disdain some Northern blacks had for newcomers from the South. For Shirley Young of Brooklyn, who recently saw the Migration show, Jacob Lawrence's paintings are a reflection of life.

SHIRLEY YOUNG: He drew it, but I lived through it because I'm 80 years old, and I remember all of the hard times, oppressions, getting in line, all that kind of stuff.

WANG: Young was born in Baton Rouge, La., and eventually moved to New York, where she's lived for more than half a century. She says some things, like racial tensions and economic inequality, haven't changed.

YOUNG: You have people without jobs. Whatever you had to do back then, you're doing the same thing now in 2015. So it's like history repeating itself.

WANG: Depicting history was not what Jacob Lawrence had in mind when he made these paintings. Instead, he was trying to capture an epic drama taking place before his eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JACOB LAWRENCE AND THE MAKING OF THE MIGRATION SERIES")

LAWRENCE: If it was a portrait, it was a portion of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers.

WANG: And a portrait of American life. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

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