Currently on view at MoMA, One Way Ticket showcases a series of 60 paintings by of Jacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000). Titled The Migration Series, these paintings illustrates the daily life of African Americans that migrated from the South to the North in search of opportunity from 1915 to 1940.
Lawrence painted this series in 1941, yet his style seemed so modern to me. The graphic, minimal quality of his figures looks so much like computer aided designs. This style lends a timelessness to the work. Since the faces are obscured, the figure could be anyone. The viewer is able to connect more fully with the message, because it can remind them of a friend, neighbor, or colleague. Each painting was paired with a short narrative of The Great Migration.
Each tempera panel re-created the historical setting and social issues of the time. African Americans in Southern stages were oppressed socially, financially, and culturally. They were segregated. They worked long hours, often in manual labor. Number 8 (above) shows a beautiful landscape, but the narrative is bitter sweet: “They did not always leave because they were promised work in the North. Many of them left because of Southern conditions, one of them being great floods that ruined the crops, and therefore they were unable to make a living where they were.“
Natural disasters, like floods or crop infestations, left these workers destitute. If crops were destroyed, there simply was no work. Families struggled to put food on the table.
The start of World War I caused prices to rise. Supplies were scarce. The cost of food substantially increased, sometimes double or triple the prewar price.
More than 1 million African Americans migrated to the North to improve life for themselves and their families. Historian Spencer R. Crew explains:
“The momentousness of the migration as an event does not alter the fact that the migrants were ordinary people. Like colonial settlers or western pioneers of an earlier day, they were not looking to change the world, only their own status. A mixture of farmers, domestic servants, day laborers, and industrial workers, they came from all parts of the South, hoping for a chance to improve their own station or at least that of their children.“
Aside from making food costs increase, World War I created jobs in the North. Men were drafted into the war, and supplies were in great demand. Since the labor pool shrunk drastically after the draft, there were many job opportunities. Northern companies aggressively recruited African American workers to relocate and repopulate the work force.
What really struck me about this exhibition was how certain conditions have not changed much. Number 22 (above) reads: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.” The painting shows men in handcuffs, thrown behind bars.
There have been so many recent cases that illustrate our society still has pockets of institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism is any system, public or private, that creates inequality based on race. I thought a lot about the Baltimore protests. Inequality isn’t just police harassment. It’s access to job opportunities and education. All of these things in tandem are devastating. So devastating that 1 million people uprooted their homes and families to create a better life.
I thought a lot about the courage it took for these people to leave their families and communities to make a better life for themselves. It was difficult to leave the South. State officials were afraid of losing their workforce. They detained and arrested anyone they suspected of migration. This meant that the migrants had to sell their belongings, only able to travel with items they could carry. They also had to travel in secret. Despite all of the difficulties, these brave men and women carried on Northward. They created new lives.
Jacob Lawrence’s paintings are so relevant to the issues we see today. They show a poignant side to the search for equality in creating a life of liberty and happiness.
The Migration Series is on view at MoMA until September 7th.
For further information on The Great Migration, please read: The Great Migration of Afro-Americans, 1915-40 by Spencer R. Crew