Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: Removing the Mask

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), The Migration of the Negro Panel no. 57, 1940–1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. (45.72 x 30.48 cm.). Acquired 1942.

Credit: The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Art © 2008 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

Most of my work depicts events from the many Harlems that exist throughout the United States. This is my genre. My surroundings. The people I know . . . the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind . . . I am part of the Black community, so I am the Black community speaking."

Jacob Lawrence, quoted in “Modern Storytellers: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold,” by Stella Paul, Department of Education,The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In this lesson, students describe and analyze Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro Panel no. 57 (1940-41), Helene Johnson’s Harlem Renaissance poem “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” (1927), and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s late-nineteenth-century poem “We Wear the Mask” (1896). Focusing on composition, image, setting, characterization, and tone, students are invited to compare and contrast the works while considering how each work represents the life and changing roles of African Americans from the late nineteenth century to the Harlem Renaissance and The Great Migration. Dunbar’s symbol of the mask can help guide students’ understanding of these changing roles.

Guiding Questions

  • How do Lawrence’s painting, Johnson’s poem, and Dunbar’s poem represent the life and changing roles of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance and The Great Migration?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to

  • Observe and analyze the way in which visual elements in Lawrence’s painting establish tone and meaning
  • Examine, analyze, and discuss how Johnson’s use of imagery and her word choices create characterization, tone, and meaning
  • Weigh how Dunbar uses symbolism to convey an argument about the role of African Americans in the late 1800s
  • Consider and reflect on the historical context of Lawrence’s, Johnson’s, and Dunbar’s works
  • Consider how the painting and poems comment on at least one aspect of life in America

Background

Jacob Lawrence

In 1940-41, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) created a series of 60 panels referred to as The Migration Series. With their corresponding captions, the panels tell many stories within a larger visual narrative about the widespread migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas throughout the North from 1910 to 1940. As Stella Paul of the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes in “Modern Storytellers: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold,” “The work is conceived as an epic, and it unfolds over sixty panels.”

Indeed, the series is an epic, as it conveys the emotional, spiritual, economic, domestic, and social lives of African Americans on a visual scale that continues to resonate today. As such, “The Migration Series” established Jacob Lawrence as a key figure in the rich world of African American art and culture fundamentally rooted in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.

Helene Johnson

While the subject matter of Lawrence’s panels was unfolding during The Great Migration, Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson was giving poetic voice to some of the same million-plus rural African Americans who left the South for better opportunities and lives in northern cities. In “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” (1927), Johnson creates a poetic narrative of the changing roles of African Americans — a transition concurrently marked in her poem by tension and criticism, on the one hand, and fascination and awe, on the other.

Lawrence’s and Johnson’s subjects emerge as symbolic figures of African Americans during the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. For Lawrence and Johnson, it is the face/head that reveals powerful symbolic meaning. Lawrence’s panel no. 52, “The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South” (part of the Picturing America portfolio [link here]) shows a manual worker, a laundress, whose head is bowed under the strain of stirring water-logged textiles. The subject of Johnson’s poem, with “head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,” displays himself openly as he navigates the Harlem streets with pride.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

In the emotions revealed or concealed by facial expression, both Lawrence and Johnson symbolically, thematically, and historically are recalling an attitude revealed by the pre-Harlem Renaissance poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In Dunbar’s 1896 poem, “We Wear the Mask,” the poet reveals how African-Americans hide their real face behind burdensome and restrictive facades. This earlier poem therefore provides a good starting point for analyzing Lawrence’s painting and Johnson’s poem and, in turn, the changing historical landscape for African Americans in the early 1900s.

Historical and Artistic Contexts

To get basic biographical and contextual information about Jacob Lawrence, this particular painting, and the Migration Series, go to the Picturing America website, enter the gallery section, and click the image (17a. You will need to pan over to find it) of The Migration of the Negro Panel no. 57, 1940–1941. A link on the page for educators will take you to the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book with a two-page chapter on Lawrence, the second page of which will be invaluable to Activities 1 and 2 below in its instructions on how to look at the painting and what kinds of questions to ask of it. For more information, you can also follow EDSITEment's Picturing America Website Links below.

The Picturing America website can provide you with comparative material on other artworks. For example, you can compare Lawrence’s use of out-of-the-jar, single-hue color and noticeable brushstrokes (as described in the Teachers Resource Book chapter on Lawrence) to color and unnoticeable brushwork in Charles Sheeler's American Landscape (1930). You also can consider and contrast how each painter makes social and historical statements through their works. John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of a Boy (1890) and Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party (1893/1894) provide effective points of comparison for examining and describing how Lawrence represents people. Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother (1936) is worthy of comparison and contrast as well, as students can examine and reflect on how each artist represents the lives of migrant and/or migrating women. Finally, Romare Bearden’s The Dove (1964), a collage that depicts life in Harlem, can help you establish the historical and social context of African-American life from the 1930s to 1940 (Lawrence) and in the late 1950s and 1960s (Bearden).

For some information about the Harlem Renaissance, see “A Brief Guide to the Harlem Renaissance” and “Walking Tour: Langston Hughes’s Harlem of 1926,” from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website. For more information on The Great Migration, see the EDSITEment-reviewed website and the EDSITEment-reviewed “In Motion: the African American Migration Experience,” including “The Great Migration.” For more information about Jacob Lawrence and his work, see “Modern Storytellers: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold,” by Stella Paul, at the EDSITEment-reviewed The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. To access and view more panels from Lawrence’s Migration Series, visit The Phillips Collection’s online exhibit “Jacob Lawrence: Over the Line,” the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jacob Lawrence: Exploring Stories.

Despite being one of the most praised young Harlem Renaissance poets by both her peers and contemporary scholars and poets, Helene Johnson remains one of the lesser-known poets of this era. Recent attention to her poetry, however, is helping her emerge as an important and highly talented Harlem Renaissance poet. For more information about Helene Johnson and her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance arts movement, see her NY Times obituary from 1995, and her biography from the University of Minnesota’s “Voice from the Gaps” website. You can access an online copy of “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” from the African American Registry.

The EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets and the EDSITEment-reviewed The Poetry Foundation websites both provide comprehensive biographies of the African-American poet and writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, at Poets.org bio and Poetry Foundation bio. Dunbar was nationally and internationally recognized during his lifetime; he published poems in major newspapers (e.g., The New York Times) and magazines. In fact, he was one of the first African-American writers to gain such widespread recognition. The text of “We Wear the Mask” is available at both sites as well. Literary analysis of the poem is available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry website.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Review the Student Interactive Guide to the Painting.
  • Print out worksheets for
    • Activity 1. Feel and Respond
    • Activity 4. Compare and Contrast

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Feel and Respond

First have students look at Lawrence’s painting before they learn anything about it. To help capture their initial impressions, reflections, and responses, give them Worksheet 1 after they have had about 5 minutes to view the painting. Give students time to fill out the worksheet, and prompt them to use their initial responses as the basis for a full-class discussion about their initial responses to the painting. The goal of the worksheet and corresponding discussion is to help students describe their personal and emotional responses to the painting and, in turn, relate to the painting to their own lives in some way. The response and discussion prompts are as follows:

  • What words does the painting make you think of?
  • How does the painting make you feel? What emotions does it make you have?
  • Does the painting remind you of anything in your life or anyone you know? Explain. Does it make you think of any other paintings you have seen or of any movies, stories, or music you know about? Explain.
Activity 2. Look, Describe, and Interpret

Have students use the Jacob Lawrence interactive to look at and describe the painting. This interactive draws on questions in the "Describe and Analyze" section of the Teaching Activities in the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book chapter on Lawrence. After students have finished the interactive individually or in small groups of 2-3 students, show the class several other paintings from The Migration Series. To access and view more panels from Lawrence’s Migration Series, visit The Phillips Collection’s online exhibit “Jacob Lawrence: Over the Line,” the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jacob Lawrence: Exploring Stories. Initiate a full class discussion, using the following questions as discussion prompts:

  • How does Lawrence tell a story in his paintings?
  • Who was migrating in The Migration Series? Where were they going?
  • Why were they leaving the South?
  • What type of jobs had African Americans traditionally done in the South?
  • What type of jobs were many migrants hoping to find in the North?
  • Lawrence added the caption “The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South" to panel no. 57. Based on this information, what do you know about this woman from this painting?
  • What was the woman’s job in panel no. 57 probably like?
  • Lawrence painted all the panels for The Migration Series at the same time, one color at a time. Look at these two other paintings from The Migration Series: During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes. (panel no. 1) and In the North the Negro had better educational facilities. How did Lawrence’s use of color affect the way the series looks?
Activity 3. Read and Discuss

Next, read Helene Johnson’s “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” out loud to the class, and then have two different student volunteers read the whole poem to the class, thereby giving students several opportunities to hear the poem. After the readings, lead a class discussion on the poem, using the following discussion prompts:

  • Who is the person the poet’s speaker is describing (the poem’s “subject”)?
  • Where is he?
  • What is he doing?
  • What adjectives does the speaker use to describe the person? (Write these words on the board, and take time to define any words your students may not know, including “disdainful,” "pompous,” “supercilious”)
  • Based on these words, how would you describe the person?
  • In line 3, what adverb does the speaker use to describe the person’s eyes? What does this word mean? What does it suggest about the person in the poem?
  • In line 7, the poet writes, “Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song.” Why is his head thrown back? What does the position of the person’s head suggest about him?
  • In line 9, who are the “others”? What do they think of the person described in the poem?
  • What does the poet mean in line 12 when she writes, “Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.”?
  • How does the speaker feel about the person in the poem?

Then, read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” out loud, and have two different student volunteers read it aloud to the class. Lead a class discussion, using the following prompts:

  • Who is the “we” in the poem?
  • Why does the mask “grin” and “lie”?
  • In line 3, what is the “debt”?
  • In line 5, what does “myriad subtleties” mean?
  • In the second stanza, who represents “the world” and “them”?
  • What poetic device is the phrase “We wear the mask”?
  • Why do you think the poet uses this poetic device?
  • What does the poet mean by “We wear the mask”?
Activity 4. Compare and Contrast

Using Worksheet 2, ask students to compare and contrast the subject of Lawrence’s painting and the subjects of Johnson’s and Dunbar’s poems. Let them compare and contrast imagery, mood, and tone, pointing to specific visual and poetic evidence. Encourage them to think about Dunbar’s symbol of the mask in relation to the subjects depicted in Johnson’s and Lawrence’s work. Then, have students write a 1-2 page essay in which they make an argument about concrete and well-supported ways in which the works represent and symbolize the changing roles African-Americans experienced between the late nineteenth century and 1940. They can use their worksheet responses to help develop their essays.

Activity 5. Reflect and Write

Now invite students to write a poem about the painting, using Dunbar and Johnson as models. Have students draw on their notes from the Student Interactive “Interactive Assessment Tool” and their Worksheets to write a poem specifically about the woman in Lawrence’s painting, from either a first-person perspective (as in Dunbar) or a third-person perspective (as in Johnson). Point out to students who choose first person they will write in the imagined voice of the woman in Lawrence’s painting. Encourage them to consider tone/mood, setting, and imagery in their poems.

Assessment

  • Assess the response worksheets informally as preparation work for the formal 1-2 page essay.
  • Assess the 1-2 page essays for the following elements: understanding of the historical and social context of the painting and poems; understanding of the details of each work; references to visual or poetic evidence to support arguments; correct and strong writing with a clear thesis statement.

Extending The Lesson

  • Have students explore visual and other documentary records of African-American Life. Start with an exploration of the exhibit “Slave to Sharecropper” from the EDSITEment-reviewed PBS American Experience website. Show the mini-documentary video on sharecropping. Then have students learn more about The Great Migration at the EDSITEment-reviewed “In Motion: the African American Migration Experience” website’s “The Great Migration” section. Have them browse the photo gallery, and direct them to the specific photos such as “From Skilled to Menial Jobs” and “The Work of Colored Women.” Finally, have them visually stroll through “Walking Tour: Langston Hughes’s Harlem of 1926,” from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website. Have them identify and bookmark 2-3 images that relate to the Lawrence painting, Dunbar poem, and Johnson poem. Call on students to share their selected images with the class, asking students to explain the relationship to the painting and poems.
  • Have students learn more about Lawrence’s painting method from The Whitney Museum of American Art. Then have students can create a painting, drawing, or collage inspired by the Dunbar poem and/or the Johnson poem.
  • Help students create a 15-minute play to depict the historical and social changes African-Americans experienced between the late 1800s and 1910.
  • Have students create a “matching game” activity in which they identify and collect images from the Explore and Discover websites and, in turn, match the images to the Lawrence, Dunbar, and Johnson works.
  • Hold a class poetry workshop in which students can critique each other’s poems, in turn preparing final versions.
  • Host a class poetry reading for students to present their poems; or, if possible, plan a poetry reading to present to the school at large.
  • Publish some poems in the school newspaper or on the school website.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media