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.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
2-3 class periods