In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just 23 years old, made a series of 60 small tempera paintings on the Great Migration, the decades-long mass movement of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North that began in 1915-16. The child of migrant parents, Lawrence worked partly from his own experience and partly from long research in his neighborhood library. The result was an epic narrative of the collective history of his people. Moving from scenes of terror and violence to images of great intimacy, and drawing on film, photography, political cartoons and other sources in popular culture, Lawrence created an innovative format of sequential panels, each image accompanied by a descriptive caption. Within months of its completion, the series entered the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (today The Phillips Collection), Washington, DC, each institution acquiring 30 panels.
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, now in paperback, grounds Lawrence’s work in the cultural and political debates that shaped his art and demonstrates its relevance for artists and writers today. The series is reproduced in full; short texts accompanying each panel relate them to the history of the Migration and explore Lawrence’s technique and approach. Alongside scholarly essays, the book also includes 11 newly commissioned poems, by Rita Dove, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Yusef Komunyakaa, Patricia Spears Jones, Natasha Trethewey, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Crystal Williams and Kevin Young, that respond directly to the series. The distinguished poet Elizabeth Alexander edited and introduces the section.