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Revisiting the Great Migration through paintings and poetry

The Great Migration of 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North was a shift that reshaped America forever. Artist Jacob Lawrence captured that story in an epic work of art known as the Migration Series. Now all 60 of Lawrence's small paintings are on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with new reflections by 10 poets. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Next: a sweeping story of migration, told in intimate detail through paintings and words.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It began during World War I and wouldn't end until the 1970s. The movement of six million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North changed America forever. The epic story is the subject of an epic work of art, The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence, himself the son of Southern migrants, who studied photographs and news and scholarly accounts before lifting a brush.

    LEAH DICKERMAN, Curator, Museum of Modern Art: The thing about Lawrence is, he's deeply read. He has an extraordinary research protocol.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Curator Leah Dickerman has brought together all 60 of Lawrence's small paintings for an exhibition titled One-Way Ticket at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

    It's a chance to see the entire work, from the hardships of life in the South, to the long journey from home, and the new life that awaited, one that included opportunity, but also new struggles. Each panel comes with a brief bare-bones caption.

  • LEAH DICKERMAN:

    There's an extraordinary emotional range to this work of art, between scenes of great tenderness and intimacy, an image of saying grace before the most spare and impoverished meal, an image of a woman reading a letter from the South to a child who's listening to her. And then it's crosscut. And I'm using that cinematic term because I think he thinks cinematically.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You do?

  • LEAH DICKERMAN:

    Yes, with images of stark racial injustice.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Jacob Lawrence was an artistic prodigy, just 23 when he began this work in 1940. He was part of the cultural flowering in mid-20th century Harlem, the Harlem renaissance of writers, musicians and artists. And the exhibition captures that period through photographs and music.

    In 1995 Lawrence, who died in 2000, spoke to the NewsHour's Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

  • JACOB LAWRENCE:

    When I did this series, I didn't know who would ever see it. I didn't know if it would ever be seen. I just did it. And I would like for people to look — feel, look, this is me. This is mankind, or womankind, obviously. And I would like it to be a universal statement as well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Universal, but deeply personal. That's how the paintings have been viewed ever since. And now, they have a new resonance into contemporary poetry.

  • PATRICIA SPEARS JONES, Poet:

    Much about the South is unseen or not shown. The painter understands the usefulness of obscenity.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The museum asked 10 poets to respond to individual paintings with a new poem.

  • TERRANCE HAYES, Poet:

    The boll weevils Jacob Lawrence painted are little more than silhouettes, but a Southern landowner would have recognized them as symbols of bad luck, bold evil, the money eaters.

  • LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON, Poet:

    Like flames of green, crop-streaked, squash-blossomed color, striped soil, go with your ratchet, Negro who had been part of soil now going into and leading a new life in the urban centers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Poet Elizabeth Alexander led the project, and she, like the others, has her own personal connections.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, Poet:

    In African-American history, in African-American culture, as a black person myself, we all have some connection to migration at some point in our families. It really was very powerful to think, this is what my mother, my very mother, my own mother, she comes from this.

  • CRYSTAL WILLIAMS, Poet:

    The past has long legs and is heavy, they said, which was a kind of warning. Stay clear of the enormous twisted tree on Tidwell Hill.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Crystal Williams grew up in Detroit. Her father had come from Alabama. She chose perhaps the most harrowing painting in the series, one about lynching. The poem she wrote, "Year After Year We Visited Alabama," became a gentle homage to her loving father.

  • CRYSTAL WILLIAMS:

    The poem really has to do with the lessons that I think we have lost. My father was truly one of the most gentle people I have ever met.

    And I understand now, as an adult, that that gentleness was a choice, that he was choosing, given what he had seen in the South, to live a life in which he looked for connections between people to practice forgiveness.

  • TYEHIMBA JESS, Poet:

    Another of the social causes of the migrants leaving was that, at times, they didn't feel safe, or it wasn't the best thing to found on the street late at night. They were arrested at the slightest provocation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tyehimba Jess went in a different direction, quoting directly from the caption of one of Lawrence's paintings of black men being arrested.

  • TYEHIMBA JESS:

    This painting in particular called me to — to speak to the fact that the things that my parents left South, left the South land to escape, are still part of this nation's DNA, and still — are still being dealt with today.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    His poem, titled "Another Man Done," is a literal layering of words, suggesting the repetition of events through time.

  • TYEHIMBA JESS:

    I see a kind of daring vision behind the idea of doing all of these paintings at once and trying to capture that moment, that idea of going from some place where you are not recognized fully for your human potential and trying to move to a place where you can fully exercise your human capacity.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One-Way Ticket is on exhibit through September 7.

    From the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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