Adaptation as Intervention: From Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series to Contemporary Echoes

Clara Juncker

Abstract : 

This essay on “Adaptation as Intervention” engages especially with African American painter Jacob Lawrence, who adapted his childhood stories of the Great Migration into sixty small panels with this major change in black Southerners’ lives as his story and theme. Lawrence obviously draws on literary texts with laconic, factual captions on all but a few of his panels, so that the he might reach his audience with both visual and verbal protest. Lawrence’s work also adapts sound and music, photography, cinema and political cartoons into interventionist visual art. This political commitment echoes in works by other 20th– and 21st-century artists, such as Wang Quingsong and the Electric Disturbance Theater, political artists who seek to motivate and activate audiences so as to bring about social change. Writers, visual artists or performers accordingly adapt to and influence political agendas such as migration, global labor, and discrimination.

 Résumé :

Cet article sur l’adaptation comme intervention s’intéresse particulièrement au peintre afro-américain Jacob Lawrence qui a adapté ses histoires d’enfance sur la grande migration en soixante petits panneaux prenant ce changement majeur dans la vie des Noirs du Sud comme histoire et thème. Lawrence s’inspire évidemment de textes littéraires avec des légendes laconiques et factuelles sur la plupart de ses toiles, sauf quelques-unes, afin de toucher son auditoire avec des protestations visuelles et verbales. Le travail de Lawrence adapte également le son et la musique, la photographie, le cinéma et les cartoons politiques pour en faire des œuvres visuelles interventionnistes. Cet engagement politique se retrouve dans le travail d’autres artistes des XXe et XXIe siècles, comme Wang Quingsong et le Electric Disturbance Theater, des artistes politiques qui cherchent à motiver et à faire réagir le public afin d’encourager des changements sociaux. Les écrivains, les plasticiens ou les artistes-interprètes s’adaptent et influencent en conséquence les agendas politiques tels que la migration, le travail mondial et la discrimination.


        In her poem “Migration,” written in response to African American artist Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940-41) and itself migrating across three pages, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon writes: “Black is an ardor./Color moving/as wholeness—yellow migrates blouse to light handle to bell green/migrates button to satchel to wall blue migrates coat to sea to night/sky—finds an order” (Dickerman and Smithgall 178). These lines of poetry capture the movement, the colors, the message and the order of Lawrence’s sixty paintings of the migration of 1,648,000 African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North. The first wave of migration occurred during WWI, when 454,000 black southerners moved North, followed by other waves, with 454,000 migrants leaving the South in the 1920s and 398,000 during the Great Depression ( To draw attention to historical discrimination and injustice, Lawrence supplemented his paintings with laconic, factual captions so as to reach his audience with both visual and verbal protest.[1] History matters, as Paul Lauter stresses in his 2007 article “Teaching Protest Literature.” But form matters also, as artists engage with new generations of readers and viewers. Saul Scott notes in “Protest Literature 101” (2009) that, faced with political oppression, “artists will often ‘say the unspeakable’ by coming at it from an oblique angle” (415). This angle may involve the “altered or amended” version of a text that the OED associates with adaptation. From Jacob Lawrence to contemporary projects, artists and academics engage with adaptations from life to art, and ultimately, they engage with adaptations from text or image to activity and activism. By including the surrounding community in their artistic endeavors, the artists hope to bring about change, to call attention to and interfere with injustice and pain. Taken just a bit further, a cultural product—literature, visual art, performance—intervenes in the social environment in which it is produced. Writers, visual artists or performers might accordingly adapt to and influence pressing political agendas, such as migration, global labor, and discrimination.

        Contemporary initiatives, in the United States and elsewhere, also seek through adaptation, further defined in the OED as “bringing two things together” for the purpose of change, to disturb or rebel against inhumanity and inequality. Lawrence’s work inspired a global endeavor among artists to insist on civil rights and visibility. Himself engaged in a project resembling that of radicals such as John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and the Farm Security Administration photographers, Lawrence served as a precursor for Thornton Dial, who in his working-class art revisited African American southerners migrating North. African American artists like Lawrence and Dial shape-shifted, so to speak, into the contemporary Chinese visual artist Wang Quingsong, who replicates their adaptations and interventions. In daring photographs and paintings, Quingsong uses representations of his own body to interfere in the politics of a rising superpower. And along the US-Mexican border, The Electronic Disturbance Theater disturbs, as is the group’s mission, preconceived notions of migration and belonging. These artists articulate in various genres—poetry, novels, photography, painting, film and music—their dissatisfaction with inequality, oppression, and censorship.

        Lawrence sought with his sixty panels, each with a caption, to insert his people into American history by representing the Great Migration. He did not himself experience this massive change in African American life, but migration stories had permeated his childhood. His parents left Virginia and South Carolina, respectively, for Atlantic City, where Lawrence was born in 1917. After his parents separated, his mother left Lawrence and his siblings in Philadelphia in 1924, until she could afford to bring her children to Harlem, where the family settled into a steadily growing migrant community (Schjeldahl 80). Lawrence explains: “I grew up hearing tales about people ‘coming up,’ another family arriving. People who’d been . . . in the North for a few years, they would say another family ‘came up’ and they would help them to get established. . .” (qtd. Gates 20; Lorensen 572). As a high school drop-out, Lawrence worked odd jobs and studied at the Harlem Art Workshop, located in the basement of what would become the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. By 1936, he had rented a corner in muralist and mentor Charles Alston’s studio at 306 West 141st Street, where prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas, would come by. After his 1938 solo exhibition at the Harlem Y.M.C.A., Lawrence participated as an easel painter in the Federal Arts Project of the Work Progress Administration (WPA). He favored epic themes, but because he was too inexperienced for mural commissions, he chose instead to paint narrative series (Schjeldahl 80). He soon produced visual histories of prominent travelers of African descent: Toussaint L’Ouverture, liberator of Haiti (1938), Frederick Douglass, runaway slave, abolitionist and orator, (1939), and Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad (1940). This work prepared him for The Migration Series. His choice of silhouettes, the anonymous figures moving through his panels featuring American land- and cityscapes, suggest his growing interest in collective history. He was, as Peter Schjeldahl writes in “Telling the Whole Story,” “The right young man in the right place at the right moment to channel, for all time, the lightning of an epochal circumstance” (80).[2]

        This right young man helped map the lives of African Americans. He shared the vision of Carter Woodson’s movement in 1926 to include black history in American history, as he himself explains: “I have always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools. . . . I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro” (Wheat 14). He sought to historicize the African American experience through his Great Migration paintings, which gave his race a new identity and visibility, both through visual and textual representations. His captions are short and direct, almost tightlipped, so as to reach a broad audience and also, perhaps, to contain his anger at the silencing of African American lives in the dominant culture and history. Jutta Lorensen sees Lawrence as “a painter who worked very consciously in the space of historical elision” (571). Lawrence wanted to adapt American history to include African American contributions, and he wanted to bring about change. In the words of the directors of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Phillips Collection, which together house The Migration Series, the work Lawrence researched and produced “was shaped by his immersion in contemporary debates about writing and giving visual form to African-American history” (Dickerman and Smithgall 7). His Migration Series introduced the first leaderless movement for civil rights to American audiences (Grossman 64).

        Lawrence’s interventionist aspirations surface not only in his choice of subject matter―the mass exodus of black southerners to the North that had drastically changed the Harlem community―but also in his adaptations. In “Fighting Blues,” Leah Dickerman quotes from a 1972 interview with Lawrence, in which he recalls the multiple strands of African American culture he encountered at Alston’s studio: “During the ‘30s there was much interest in black history and the social and political issues of the day—this was especially true at 306. It became a gathering place. . . . I received not only an experience in the plastic arts—but came in contact with older blacks from the theater, dance, literary and other fields. At sixteen, it was quite a learning experience . . . .” (Dickerman and Smithgall 16). The four divisions of the WPA cultural program—Writers, Theater, Music and Art—further inspired his formal innovations, which allowed him to increase the impact of his visual art by drawing on various political and artistic sources. His adaptations move across image to text, sound, photography and film, so as to transfer and transform.

        Panel number 1 depicts a crowd of black southerners mostly dressed in dark colors rushing to bright orange ticket counters marked “Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis.” Lawrence adapts his visual image into a caption, so as to communicate with audiences through both image and text. These three cities had a chapter each in Emmet J. Scott’s Negro Migration during the War (1920), which Lawrenceread in the 135th Street library in Harlem and occasionally copied verbatim. These topographical alternatives to life in the segregated South exist only textually in the first part of his series, and they reinforce his depiction of the southern prejudice the migrants hasten to escape. Other sources of inspiration include Richard Wright, at this time Harlem editor of the communist newspaper the Daily Worker andco-authoring a guidebook to New York City sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) (Dickerman and Smithgall 15). As the language of race changed, Lawrence kept up his efforts to communicate well. In the 1990s, past eighty years of age, Lawrence revised most of the captions originally produced in 1941 in order to keep up with contemporary viewers and readers. “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes” became in 1993 “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.” He also revised the Migration captions so that they became shorter, more succinct, to suit the pace and style of late 20th-century addressees.

        Like radical writers of the Depression era—Richard Wright, Dos Passos, John Steinbeck and others—Lawrence also sought to adapt his art to the speech of his people. The Migration Series communicates like an interactive oral performance (Lorensen 583). In many panels, the migrants discuss, listen, or read, thus emphasizing the textuality of the art work, and the political decisions involved in migration. In panel 20, three figures in the foreground and two in the background are immersed in reading a newspaper together, with mostly brown, unobtrusive space between the two groups so as to emphasize their shared activity. Lawrence stresses not only the reading but also the outcome of this engagement with text in his 1993 caption: “In many of the communities the Black press was read with great interest. It encouraged the movement.” In panel 26, two men lean on a brown fence, which fills the space of the panel, along with a blue sky and a barren tree. With the two figures centered in the panel, Lawrence highlights their dialog and interaction, also central to his caption: “And people all over the South continued to discuss this great movement.” Dickerman compares these ongoing conversations to the oral history initiatives of the FWP (19). The end result is political agitation and adaptation. Obviously, Lawrence seeks to reach his readers and viewers, to persuade them, to intervene into the historical moment they occupy together. He creates in his series a communal voice and presents the political agency of his anonymous figures, and of those they face.

        This communal voice sounds like blues and jazz. Lawrence encountered a busy, inspiriting music scene in Harlem, and the sound of African American music echoes in his works, including The Migration Series. Lawrence paints and writes with the passion and personal involvement of a jazz musician. Like a blues singer or a jazz player, he draws on intimate experiences, such as a woman cutting a slab of fatback for her hungry, emaciated son in panel 11, with the caption bemoaning that “Food had doubled in price because of the war.” Panel 6 depicts the interior of a north-bound railroad car at night, a migrant mother nursing her baby while sleeping bodies and the lack of space hint at brutal passages in the African American past: “The trains were crowded with migrants.” Regarding this panel, Jodi Roberts, Curatorial Assistant for MoMA, notes that blues singer Maggie Jones recorded the hit “Northbound Train” in 1925 (Dickerman and Smithgall 58), thus serving as a sound track of sorts to Lawrence’s painting.

        Other jazz or blues recordings also involve experiences suffered and endured. Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” recording in 1939 may resonate in its protest and its silences with panel 15. In this painting a forlorn—even abject—isolated figure sits bent over, literally on the edge of a brown diagonal line that creates disturbance and discord. An empty noose, hanging from a single brown tree branch, occupies the center of the panel, surrounded by pastel blues and streaks of light brown, suggesting, perhaps, more trees and more lynching in the South. As in blues and jazz, sung or performed by African American artists, captions suggest with repetitions and variations the migration experience: “The trains were crowded with migrants” (panel 6), “The migration gained in momentum” (panel 18), “The migration spread” (panel 23), “The migrants arrived in great numbers” (panel 40), “The migrants kept coming” (panel 60). The distinctive colors of the paintings, such as bright yellows, reds and blues, repeated and varied, parallel the prominent meters and the syncopated rhythms of jazz.

        The many repetitions of “the migrants kept coming” and the concluding panel 60, in which the migrants confront the viewer, reinforce the orality of Lawrence’s project and the audience “you.” The migrants transform, in a sense, the viewers into listeners, as if they were a gathering of preachers calling out to congregations, a gospel choir or maybe a silent, attentive club audience. Overall, this orality links up with folk tales and oral modes of communication within African American culture, such as call and response. Both the sounds and the silences of the Migration panels perform the lived and felt African American experiences. Lorensen elaborates: “The last panel shows that the Migration Series is not only interested in telling a story, narrating the events or ‘causes’ of the Great Migration, but interested as well in linking them to the viewer/reader. This culmination has been adumbrated by the ‘migration refrains’ throughout the narration” (583). The sixty panels suggest a community come together, improvising and negotiating an artistic and political agenda as they move along.

        The simplicity and directness of Lawrence’s work parallel the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, who also documented the lives and hardships of poverty-stricken Americans during the Great Depression. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with photographs by Walker Evans and text by James Agee, came out in 1941 and, like Lawrence’s Migration panels, this book escapes traditional genre conventions. Apart from Agee’s rhapsody and lyricism, which echo Lawrence’s soundscapes, Evans’s straight-on photography gives to his poor Alabama sharecroppers the dignity and humanity they share with the migrants. In panel 25, the green curtain amidst the rough, brown boards of Lawrence’s abandoned sharecropper’s cabin suggests the efforts of its former inhabitants to decorate the narrow space. In Evans’s photographs, the sharecroppers’ cabins show similar efforts at owning and humanizing their space, and their lives, with paper lace or newspaper clippings used for decoration. The child labor in Agee and Evans’s fields—especially the ten-year-old Maggie Louise Gudger picking cotton—recurs in panel 24, in which African American children work in the fields and carry loads so heavy that most cannot stand up straight. Lawrence’s caption connects this obligatory field labor to the lack of educational opportunities: “Their children were forced to work in the fields. They could not go to school.” Both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Migration Series rely on images for attention, and for intervention.

        Dickerman writes that “enthrallment with FSA photo-culture was strong in Lawrence’s circles” (22). In early 1940, Charles Alston traveled South posing as an FSA photographer and used photos taken in the South for paintings such as “Tobacco Farmer” (1940). This painting depicts a black southerner, dressed in overalls and a blue shirt, in front of a simple barn, with a glimpse of the surrounding fields that make up his world. It helps explain his grim facial expression, and it echoes strongly Evans’s frontal shots of white Alabama sharecroppers taken just a few years earlier. Another of Lawrence’s mentors, Richard Wright, published Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States in 1941, with his own and FSA-produced photographs that often resemble a Lawrence panel, both in subject matter and technique (Dickerman and Smithgall 22-23). Wright’s captions are as simple, rhythmic and collective as those in The Migration Series: “We labor in farm factories” (82) and, across two pages “We sleep…” (84) … in wooden barracks” (85). Accompanying a photo of Chicago’s South side, Wright states in his caption: “The streets claim our children” (139). Like others in his circle of artists, Lawrence employed the media favored by his audience and thus adapted his interventions to contemporary platforms especially suited for political persuasion.

        Politicized or radical writers such as John Dos Passos also drew on cinema to reach an audience. In “Grosz Comes to America,” published in Esquire magazine in 1936, Dos Passos wrote: “From being a word-minded people we are becoming an eye-minded people” (105). Both Dos Passos and Lawrence had learned about Sergei Eisenstein’s montage techniques, the former from a trip to Russia and Lawrence from Jay Leyda, assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art (Dickerman and Smithgall 23). Leyda had studied with Eisenstein for three years before he joined MoMA and became a leading figure in Russian avant-garde cinema studies. Dickerman writes that the repetitions of people, metaphors and motifs in Lawrence’s panels constitute a “rhythmic intersplicing of congruent bodies of images, the juxtaposition producing both aesthetic and ideological meaning.” The Migration Series “resembles nothing so much as Eisenstein’s montage: the Soviet filmmaker’s cutting back again and again to the baby carriage to the thrilling Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin is the most famous example” (23). Dos Passos concludes about his own eye-mindedness: “in spite of my early training I tend to take a painting visual end first.” His privileged class and race position aside, he describes to a degree the younger Lawrence’s inspiration and project: “I think something of the sort has happened to many Americans of my generation, and even in a greater degree to the generations younger than us [sic], so that an appetite and a taste for painting is growing up in this country very fast. Display advertising and the movies, though they may dull the wits, certainly stimulate the eyes” (105). Lawrence’s sixty panels work together as a movie sequence, with one frame following the next, and he uses linearity, repetition, juxtaposition, cross-cutting and montage to tell his story as compellingly as a film audience might expect.

        Also, political cartoons have left their marks on Dos Passos’s and Lawrence’s (African) American epics. Dos Passos cites as his inspiration for his U.S.A. trilogy George Grosz, with his focus “not in the studio or in the metaphysics of color but in the everyday life as he saw it of men and women sleeping, dressing, eating, going to work, drinking, making love, and in their dreams and their wants.” Dos Passos concludes about Grosz: “He was a satirist and a moralist” (131). The same may be said for Lawrence, who used the satirical forms of the political cartoon to depict the white authority figures suspended above, and often violating, the everyday lives of his African American protagonists. Like Grosz and Dos Passos, Lawrence inspired, and initiated, contemporary debates about justice, democracy and equality. In Dos Passos’s words, “a satirist is a man whose flesh creeps so at the ugly and the savage and the incongruous aspects of society that he has to express them as brutally and nakedly as possible” (131). This naked approach suited the media of Lawrence’s time and landed The Migration Series in Fortune magazine, with four spreads and twenty-six images. His art intervened, as the Fortune editors knew. Lawrence knew it also:

I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing. They had to liberate themselves without any education. Today we can’t go about it in the same way. Any leadership would have to be the type of Frederick Douglass. . . . How will it come about? I don’t know. I’m not a politician, I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about. (Wheat 14)

        Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Lawrence reverberates in literary and visual efforts to influence American and global audiences. As Lawrence revised his Migration captions in the 1990s, another artist, Thornton Dial, revisited his subject matter, the African American migration from sharecropping and cotton fields in the South to urban assembly lines in the North. Dial assembled paintings such as “Heading for the Higher-Paying Jobs” (1992) from scrap metal, carpeting pieces and other waste products found in post-industrial Bessemer, Alabama, thus adapting waste to art. Dial put these materials to new use so as to point to the discarding of African American lives and futures, from the civil rights movement to the contemporary financial displacement of the African American work force. Amidst critical discussions of the market and museum attraction to “outsider” or self-taught artists of color over formally trained ones, New York’s Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art jointly exhibited Dial’s assembly paintings and sculptures in 1996; the Whitney Biennial included him in 2000 (Doss 234; Conwill [2]). Dial brought about change not just in making waste and junk serve new functions. Like Lawrence, he also gave visibility to African American folk art and its practitioners. These artists—and their causes—slowly entered dominant cultural institutions and cultures, in the process empowering the African Americans who did not manage to tell—or show—their stories.

        This adaptation of traditional forms and materials to new uses occurs as well in global settings, where protest takes on various shapes. In China, visual artist Wang Quingsong adapts his own body to various political interventions, all calling attention to the lack of freedom and the conformity and materialism of Chinese society. In one self-portrait, he appears with long, wild hair standing straight from his skull, empty patches in between these electrified locks, as if he has torn from his head at least half of his hair strands. His attention-grabbing hair may suggest the creativity inside his brain, as if his imagination is transforming his hair into electric wires. At the same time, his photograph also suggests pain—as in tearing one’s hair—and horror, as if he cannot bear to participate, or to watch, what is outside the frame.

        In other paintings, Quingsong is on life support, the artist now disguised as a university professor sitting down in the middle of a classroom crowded with sleeping students at their desks, each surrounded by tall piles of closed books. The many slogans on the wall, some in English for global audiences (a protest against intellectual colonization?) suggest the brainwashing or mindlessness of Chinese education (“Follow You” 2013). As Quingsong states about his paintings in university settings, “I am talking about the education problem in China. Knowledge is taught but not learnt by many people who fail to understand the real meanings. They don’t know the meaning of studies. They study for their parents, for their grandparents, but never for themselves, for the love of knowledge itself. Therefore, we see so many students trash their books after examinations” ( To protest the Chinese lack of critical thinking, Quingsong appears in “Thinker” (1998) as a praying monk in lotus position, but with a Macdonald’s logo tattooed on the skin of his chest. Drawing on a Buddhist heritage that has gone sour, his tattoo of an American chain brand suggests the commercialization and superficiality of contemporary China. Like Jacob Lawrence, Wang Quingsong uses adaptation to get his messages across and rewrite the official histories of his nation. From painting to body, from text to tattoo, he changes his medium of protest so as to engage his audiences in innovative ways. Quite a few viewers have studied the students in “Follow Me” up close, to figure out what this new medium might be: A painting? A photograph? A happening? A theater performance? A cartoon?

        On the North American continent, adaptations proliferate. The Electronic Disturbance Theater operates along the US-Mexican border by handing out second-hand mobile phones with GPS to illegal immigrants from South America. In the description of this project, “The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT),” the group writes: “Its software aspires to guide “the tired, the poor,” the dehydrated—citizens of the world—to water safety sites. Concomitantly, its platform offers poetic audio “sustenance.” This “poetry in motion” adaptation establishes a “global poetic system” and a grassroots interventionist practice. The project activates sound, images, words and movement across human sensory apparatuses. It aims to have audiences walk with cellphones, so that they may experience from afar the hope and hardships within immigrant bodies, who take steps towards better lives along with those watching and experiencing from their phones, their computers, or from exhibits of various kinds. As the website announces, the tool won the “Transnational Communities Award” in 2008, an award funded by the Endowment for Culture Mexico-U.S., and it also won awards from the University of California, San Diego Center for the Humanities. Some years before Donald Trump took office, a development for disruptive art along the US-Mexico border already seemed urgent. Glenn Beck, conservative author and radio host, declared the Transborder Immigrant Tool “a gesture that potentially ‘dissolved’ the U.S. border with its poetry” (, a change that opponents of Mexican wall construction would undoubtedly welcome.

        As a part of the Poetry Suite accompanying the 2015 MoMA exhibition of The Migration Series, Terrance Hayes started off his “Four Premonitions of Migration” poem by inserting Lawrence’s work into contemporary debates about police killings of black Americans:

To grasp the inextricable ghosts riding you
Into an inexplicable future, you must place your lips
To panel thirteen until you taste something human
In the colors of the dirt. To suit present life
You must revise “The crops were left to dry and rot.
There was no one left to tend them,” to read:
“The cops were left to cry and shoot. No one was left
To defend them. . . .”

        His poem begins a conversation with Jacob Lawrence’s art and intervenes through genre- and other border crossings in contemporary racial topographies and ideologies. Hayes zooms in on panel 13 for many reasons. The panel depicts a barren landscape, with brown, naked trees to the left and a multi-colored, abandoned field anchoring the panel at the bottom. Most of the panel is covered by sky, pastel brown and blue, to set off an orange-reddish sun baking from above, with uninterrupted rays downwards. A cloud formation in a darker blue, with whitish areas below, suggests the ghost-like presence that Hayes identifies—the ghosts of southern history and black laborers and migrants’ lives. As in southern landscapes described throughout southern history, the black southerners are present through their absence—the historical elision Lawrence sought to fill. Hayes goes on a similar mission through his poem, which calls for physical contact between artwork and audience—a sensory journey that might enable identification and human response: “you must place your lips/To panel thirteen until you taste something human….” The panel caption lends itself to Hayes’s project: with the substitution of “cops” for “crops,” he signifies on Lawrence’s words and brings together the deadly forces of African American lives, then and now.

        In June 2015, Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American novelist, reacted strongly to the sixty Migration panels, all exhibited together at MoMA. The connection she describes is as close as in Hayes’s poem. Danticat felt “glued” to Lawrence’s silhouettes, which “heartbreakingly” showed “black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain” (2). She had just made it through the week of the Charleston murders in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and she longed for the community of Lawrence’s migrants, “for their witness and fellowship” (2). So, Lawrence’s adaptations from life to art continue to inspire and to comfort. Schjeldahl adds: “As with much world-changing art, you can feel that ‘Migration’ is the invention less of an individual artist than of the artist serving as an instrument of invisible, urgent powers.” He also notes that “Lawrence continued to make excellent paintings and prints to the end of his life” (Schjeldahl 82). The young Harlem resident began his artistic and political journey with African American icons and the anonymous migrants during WWI through the Great Depression traversing his signature panels. His interventionist agenda traveled across genres—painting, writing, photography, music, cinema and cartoons—in order to reach the audiences he sought to activate. The recent exhibitions, debates, publications and adaptations of his work suggest that he succeeded, though the problems he took on, like the migrants, keep coming.

Works Cited

“Adaptation.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 15/08/17.

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. New York: Mariner Books, 2001. Print.

“Carter G. Woodson Biography.” Web. 10/04/17.

Conwill, Kinshasha Holman. “In Search of an ‘Authentic’ Vision: Decoding the Appeal of the Self-Taught African-American Artist.” American Art 5.4 (Autumn 1001): 2-9. Print.

Dickerman, Leah and Elsa Smithgall, eds. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. Reprint edition, 2015. Print.

Dos Passos, John. “Grosz Comes to America.” Esquire 6 (September 1936): 105, 128, 131. Print.

Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Danticat, Edwidge. “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain.” The New Yorker June 22, 2015. Web. 18/05/18.

Electronic Disturbance Theater. “The Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Web. 30/07/18.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “New Negroes: Migration and Cultural Exchange.” Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Ed. Elizabeth Hutton Turner. Washington, DC: Rappahannock P, 1993. 17-21. Print.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.Print.

Hayes, Terrance. “Four Premonitions of Migration.” 2015. Web. 15/05/18.

Lauter, Paul. “Teaching Protest Literature.” The Radical Teacher 79 (2007): 8-12. Print.

Lorensen, Jutta. “Between Image and Word: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series.’” African American Review 40.3 (Fall 2006): 571-86. Print.

Museum of Modern Art. “One Way Ticket.” Web. 10/05/18.

Quingsong, Wang. Official Webpage. 19/04/18.

Saul, Scott. “Protest Literature 101.” American Literary History 21.2 (Summer 2009): 404-17. Print.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Telling the Whole Story: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series.’” The New Yorker (April 20, 2015): 80-82. Print.

Wheat, Ellen Harkins. Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-1940. Hampton: Hampton University Museum, 1991. Print.

Wright, Richard. Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. 1941. London: Lindsay, Drummond, 1947. Print.

The Author

Clara Juncker (Ph.D. Tulane University) is Associate Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. She has published widely in the United States and Europe on Transnational Studies, 19th– and 20th-century American Literature, African American Studies, Film and Literature, Southern Literature, Gender Studies, and Literary Theory. Her books include Trading Cultures: Nationalism and Globalization in American Studies (2002), Through Random Doors We Wandered: Women Writing the South (2002), Transnational America: Contours of Modern U.S. Culture (2004), Circling Marilyn: Text, Body Performance (2010) and The Transatlantic Sixties: Europe and the United States in the Counterculture Decade (2013).


[1] Lawrence’s paintings can be accessed here:
[2] Another version of this paragraph appeared in Southern Exposure: Essays Presented to Jan Nordby Gretlund. Ed. Thomas Ærvold Bjerre, Clara Juncker, and David E. Nye (Odense, Denmark: The Department for the Study of Culture, 2017), 15-16.