All throughout the 20th century it was evident that racial tension peaked for African Americans. Everything for African Americans’ had changed. Although this was a time when they were granted the rights of citizenship and the rights to vote there was still much discrimination and segregation that was implemented towards them. Many people were affected tremendously by the racial strain between African Americans and “White” Americans. Often times African Americans would would depict their feelings and hardships through song, dance, the theatre but most of all art.
Jacob Lawrence was and still is recognized today as a famous artists who depicted his heritage through his artwork. He used art as a way to make a difference within the world. His intentions was to open the eyes of everyone and to show them what had happened in the past, to make sure that it would not ensue again. Jacob Lawrence chose to portray more of the sadness and struggle within his artwork. He simply felt the need to illustrate the message of the African American people. Jacob Lawrence is and was a product of his heritage and his environment.
This specific African American Artists was influenced by his history dealing with social issues such as: slavery, the great migration, the harlem renaissance, and the struggle through segregation. Jacob Lawrence expressed these social issues throughout his life’s work. Some might say that Jacob Lawrence was just like any other artist during his time. That he was just outlining everything that surrounded him. Others would say, Lawrence was “an artists who put his feelings on canvas” (DuBois, 56), or even a “pictorial historian” who depicted the history of his people throughout his artwork.
He felt as if his paintings and drawings had a deeper and heavier impact on society then just voicing his opinion on the struggles. During his early childhood Jacob’s father left him and his family alone, but in 1927 they picked up and moved to Philadelphia. The impact of his father’s leaving, was a hard situation for Jacob to grasp because he was so young. But he did understand that he now was responsible for the care of his siblings and mother. His mother, Rosa Lee, struggled to find work and was not making enough money to support her children. She was forced to move to Harlem, New York, which enabled her to seek out a new paying job.
Jacob and his siblings were left in foster care until their mother was able to save a sufficient amount of money to send for them. After finally reuniting with his mother in Harlem. Jacob found that the move to the north differed immensely from his old home. He was mesmerized with the new accommodated of his life style.
“To Jacob it was not just another city, it seemed like another planet” (Duggleby, 9).
He took a closer look into how the streets and buildings were structured as well as the exotic lifestyle of every person he would pass by. Jacob tended to believe that each person , each building and each doorway told its own story.
Jacob focused on the lifestyle of the community within Harlem. One of his paintings emphasize the type of lifestyle and actions that were found within the city. He painted what he could remember: what life was like, what the inside nightclubs felt like and how the streets were portrayed. The vibrant colors and the configuration he used depicts the signs and billboards, the street life and the life within the windows of apartment buildings. Jacob Lawrence wants the viewers to be able to imagine the exact feel for what it was like to live in Harlem. He created this series to explain how much Harlem impacted his life.
It was his home, where he started his art. “I was thirteen years of age. I remember seeing the movement, the life, the people, the excitement. We were going through a great, great depression at that time, but despite that, I think, there was always hope”, he said. He acknowledged the immense impact of the energy that Harlem had on him as a young child. In his piece called “This is Harlem”, it shows the illusion of building, the fire escape, and the windows being repeated throughout the painting, which symbolizes the love of the visual essence that he discovered within the city.
The fact that Jacob uses an array of heights, color, and sizes of the apartment buildings create a focal point around the picture’s surface in addition to creating a more lifelike appeal to the painting. He intended for people to look at the image of Harlem and be able to understand the culture and community. The move to the north for many African Americans brought a new groundbreaking flow of creativity, especially for Jacob. For Jacob, Harlem was where his love for art blossomed. In the year of 1930, he began his studies in arts and craft with a man by the name of Charles Alston.
Jacob admired Charles Alston, he would always be anxious to get to him, to learn anything he did not know or understand about the art world. Charles Alston invigorated Jacob to continue his studies in art in his own unique way, he said that
“I don’t teach Jacob Lawrence; he teaches himself. The best I can do is help him to find his own way” (Duggleby, 22).
People such as Charles Alston and poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay motivated Jacob Lawrence to analyze his own heritage so he is able to evoke his history through art.
In his early artistic studies, Jacob said: “There was a certain kind of magic in it-to put something down on a two-dimensional picture plane that would take on meaning. That intrigued me. And I could make decisions: Do I want to use this color, or that color? People like myself very rarely had the opportunity of making decisions. You could make decisions, here. You were in a kind of control, here. And in a very constructive way”. As a young child he was able to feel like he had power and control in his illustrations.
He began to paint the primary environment around him such as his studio and life at home with his family. Some of his other early work include “a biting, satirical view of life in Harlem” (DuBois, 79), which accentuates racial tension, crime, political brutality and poverty. Later in 1935 Jacob met “Professor” Charles Seifert, who encouraged Jacob to educate himself about the heros of his ancestry. Jacob was taken aback after having heard one of Seifert’s lectures, which later prompted him to explore the history and political battles of his people.
From all of his research he became fascinated with the courageous events that he had studied, which then compelled him to create a series of paintings to tribute to the important African American heroic figures, The life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, The life of Frederick Douglas, and The life of Harriet Tubman. The anecdote of these monumental freedom fighters became heroine pride, hope and survival for their followers. This was one of Jacob’s favorite themes, creating a pictorial of these people’s lives.
He especially favored Harriet Tubman because of her courage and the battle she fought against slavery. In one of his paintings named, “Over the Line”, Jacob portrays Harriet Tubman crossing the border into Canada. He willfully depicted her as floating through the air just as the bird are doing so around her. His objective of illustrating Harriet Tubman as floating above ground was to send out the message that “It does not matter who you are, what race you come from, or what your background is, if you work hard and show determination, bravery and hope, you can accomplish anything” (Lawrence).
Jacob wanted to not only send out the message of strength and hope but also created this series as a recognition of racial barriers and the intention of finding an “common ground” between all American regardless of their differences. Jacob’s purpose for the Harriet Tubman series was to tell the story of slavery. Before he introduced her–through his artwork–to American society, Harriet Tubman was not very known except throughout the African American community. He tells her story starting
“from the work in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement to her role as a nurse in the Civil War” (Goddu).
When composing Harriet Tubman’s series he gave distinct characteristics to her, such as: “broad shoulders, large block like hands and arms that work like machines” (Over the Line, 131) to delineate the strength and bravery she consumed. He wanted to show how Harriet Tubman acted as a protectorate of the people who suffered the hardship of slavery. Jacob also intended to tell the stories by altering the planes within the compositions he created to expatiate the minds of his viewers.
Later in 1941 Jacob was inspired to create a series called The Migration of the Negro, which was entirely based on his family’s experience and all of the recollections of the community that he was apart of. For this particular series of paintings, Jacob Lawrence tried to accentuate the message of his art as well as sustaining his viewers’ recently found sense of literacy.
There was one specific panel that Jacob loved, it was panel No. 22. Jacob said that it was his favorite because, “No. 2 of the series depicts the stark, bitter reality of unprovoked social injustice as it is dramatically played out in the backs of three black victims, handcuffed together facing the harsh vertical restraints of a prison cell” (Over the Line, 78). The configuration is crafted with the pain of injustice, hopelessness and the undefined subjects, which illuminate anyone who are descendants of the African American community. Jacob exemplifies the hopelessness to escape or the liberty of redemption. The object of this series was to unify the painting, he did this by using the same color for each of the images.
He says that if he did not unify the series “[he] would feel [he] would have finished one panel and there wouldn’t of been a relationship between the one and the twentieth panel. They would have all been different. ” He wanted the series to stay together, he felt that the panels said more and sent out a stronger message of how brutal and cruel this time was for African Americans. He was prompted to tell the stories of the migration and what came along with it. He yearned for people to “listen” to the stories of how African Americans went from lynchings in the South to business opportunities and a better way of life in the North.
In October of 1942 Jacob’s series of The great migration of the Negro was shown at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon which coexists with the racial unrest, as well as the public forum on race relations. The following year Jacob Lawrence seemed to start coming out of his Harlem experience and moving forward to other aspects of life. In 1943 Jacob was introduced into the U. S coast guard where he stayed throughout World War II. During the time that he was stationed in the navy, Jacob battled discrimination.
Although he was fortunate enough to be granted permission to be apart of a racially mixed crew, he still felt the tension of being separated and discriminated against. A year later Jacob’s personal life acted as a model to his art when he involved the first racially integrated unit in the US military apart of history. He was now a caretaker. He was responsible for serving meals to white officers, however, his series of “The Migration of the Negro” brought him great recognition and the commanding officer Captain J. S Rosenthal provided a small area within his own home in order for Jacob to continue expanding his artwork.
By the time he was 27 years old he was assigned to the Sea Cloud, which became a desegregated vessel. His art pieces depict the interest of each crew member at work. In relation to his war series, he captured the Coast Guardsmen doing routine things. He stated “A man may never see combat, but he can be a very important person. ” He illustrated the endurance of pain and hardship of labor and maintenance within his paintings. He intended for people to understand, that a person did not need to physically be involved in combat in order for them to struggle with the same amount of hardship and emotional pain as those who do serve in combat.
In one of his paintings he depicts the technological pattens aboard the Sea Cloud. The meaning behind this painting was to introduce to people that there was more then just a bunch of buttons to push, but to show that the crew members on the Sea Cloud served as a greater purpose then what people thought they did. Most of these paintings were based on Jacob’s memories of serving on the Sea Cloud. After Jacob was discharged form the Sea Cloud he began to put all of his focus on the wartime series. He created 14 paintings which represented the overlook and meaningful expressions of life occurring during the global conflict.
The objective of his war series was to institutionalize racism. For this series Jacob does not illustrate a continuous narrative, but consists of impressions or images that are either remembered or that he has imagined them to be. In order to create this series and show the gruesome and intensity of the war, he chose to use bold colors and oversize the human figures. In one of his paintings called “Beachhead”, Jacob paints this piece to capture a profile of a group of soldiers who are charging ahead, with a looming tank in the background.
He purposefully amplifies the features of the soldiers to lure the attention to their ethnicities. He is trying to send out the message that even in the middle of combat racism still lingers. This series highlights the men, the soldiers, demonstrative body language and capture the sorrow of their wartime experience. Jacob not only focused on war and the racial aspects that came along with it, but he also directed his work not towards the Civil Rights Movement but the racial theme and how that affected the life of African Americans. In the late 1950’s Jacob focused more on the clearly nonpolitical experiences of African Americans.
He began painting street scenes, religious activities, and intimate pictures of African American labor and leisure. A painting called “Palm Sunday”, was Jacob’s depictions of desegregation cases.
“Palm Sunday, bubbled with a Brown-v. -Board-of-Education-of-Topeka dread and indirectly spewed out a bitter, race-infused bile” (Over the Line, 161).
Jacob’s hidden basis for this painting, is simply integrationist, which happened to be the perspective of other African Americans as well. His objective of “Palm Sunday” was to be able to situate African Americans into everyday American life and society.
Although his depictions of integration on canvas was the delightful part of his heritage he seemed to always undermine his own positive views by revealing the roots of American violence. Generally for this series, Jacob would base his paintings off of current events that were transpiring in the years 1960-62. Within these years, much historical occurrences took place, such as sit-in, Jim crow laws and the freedom riders. To depict these discriminate events, Jacob’s most intense painting “Ordeal of Alice” drew the most comment from critics.
Jacob Lawrence describes the painting as, “a girl who captures the courage of the poineering children who first sought to attened all-white schools. ” The painting consists of a small African American girl with arrows piercing her white dress and stockings, creating bright red blood splashes spread upon her clothing. Jacob’s objective of the painting was create a bold statement towards the Supreme court and the minimal amount of progress they have achieved in regards to desegregating schools. He knew that racial tension and the taunting of African American kids would scar and haunt them throughout their lifetime.
In an interview Jacob Lawrence confesses that what he had painted was in fact a nightmare. He stated, ” it must be hellish… it must be like a dream – out of this world. You see they’re human beings, yet they’re like animals. The little girl becomes a symbol where they can get it [their hate] out. These people have no insight. It’s sad that they’re that way. They’re worse off than the girl. ” His intension for this painting was to not necessarily to make a political statement about racism and discrimination, but the outcome of this painting was viewed as political.
It was viewed as an “ugly situation” as Jacob would call it. He was trying to introduce the to the world a new view on the way society is acting. He wanted the world to be aware of the racist and discriminate people, through a more effective way, which was to depict a scene or event that would speak to people through his artwork. After segregation was considered unconstitutional, Jacob took a new approach with his artwork and wanted to exemplify the unity between all people. In the 1970’s, Jacob saw the rapid growth of Seattle take place.
He was always fond of watching the constriction that was blossoming everywhere. It not only reminded him of his childhood back in Harlem but also was a turning point in relation to his artwork. Before he actually began painting, Jacob took into consideration what “building” meant to him. He said that “it stood for creating not just structures but better lives. ” Some of his paintings shows struggle, but within this series building shows the beauty of the people working together (Duggleby, 48). To show the unification of society he painted workers of many different ethnicities.
As well as adding in children and families for the mere fact of advocating that people of all different types of background must come together to build the future. Jacob implies that there must be unity and fellowship between all people in order to have a healthy world. This series of “building paintings” stood as a representative of change in society and his own personal view of struggle, hope and togetherness. Throughout Jacob Lawrence’s life’s work, he has shown many artists after him and has made that path to believing in the smallest thing.
The lesson in African American life and culture, is to believe in the small things in order to make anything big happen. He is not known as a cultural ambassador but as a pictorial historian, His intentions were to share and tell the stories of his heritage and history of his people, to express the horrifying and celebratory affairs that have taken place during his time. Through his own expressions in his artwork, Jacob Lawrence depicts the struggles of the african American people. His love and passion for art was not intended to tell the stories of African Americans but he did intend it to make a difference and impact society.