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Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series: a Pictorial Memory of Black America


The current study focuses on the text Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series: a pictorial memory of black America written by Eliane Elmaleh. It is a commentary of the paintings done by Jacob Lawrence with elements of the historical background of both the artist and the African-American community at the start of the 20th century. The Migration Series is one of the most influential works of that period which illustrates the hardships that African-American people faced from the 1910s to 1940s. The current study consists of three sections: an introduction, a summary of the major themes, and a conclusion.

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For better understanding of the text and the cultural background, it is essential to provide information about the author. At the moment of publication, Eliane Elmaleh worked as an assistant professor who taught the history of America at the Université du Maine, Le Mans, France. Her areas of study were modern art, feminist discourses, the American media, and identity politics. During her career, the author has published a number of articles concerning the mentioned themes in prominent scholarly journals. Elmaleh also promotes the idea of halting the stereotypes and discrimination of African-American people.

The subject of the text is the narrative provided in The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence. The theme of the paintings is the migration of African-American people from the South which started in the 1910s. This period of time was especially challenging for the minorities due to a rapid increase in unemployment and the spread of racist ideology in the South. At the start of the 20th century, the vast majority of African-American people resided in the southern part of the United States. However, by the end of the first part of the Great Migration in 1940, a significant number of them had already moved to the North. In the end, the migration had an immense impact on the US socially and economically.

The main objectives of the author were to study the narrative of The Migration Series and to determine what implications Jacob Lawrence presented in his series of visual images. To achieve these goals, Elmaleh used a number of methods, such as a thorough analysis of the panels and research of historical and cultural background. The author also examined the details of paintings, such as color, shapes, and composition, and investigated the themes of struggle and oppression persisting in the work.

Elmaleh established that Jacob Lawrence did not have any particular message in his work, he merely wanted to depict life as he observed it. However, American society was in the necessity of change, and the African-American community required a representative that could declare their needs to the government. Thus, Jacob Lawrence created the work displaying the protest against society without implications to do so.

Summary of the Text

The first major theme of the text is the biography of Jacob Lawrence and the cultural context that led to the creation of The Migration Series. Jacob Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1917, but at the age of thirteen, he moved to Harlem, New York City. This neighborhood became the center of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most substantial African-American cultural movements in the United States. The members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston, and William H. Johnson, vastly influenced the art of Jacob Lawrence. For instance, by the time Lawrence created The Migration Series, Aaron Douglas had already portrayed the Great Migration in his work. Moreover, Douglas used the flat and cubist elements in his paintings, which would be later observed in the work of Jacob Lawrence as well.

Another spike of inspiration for Lawrence was the art critic Alain Locke who encouraged the painters of the Harlem Renaissance to deny the western component in their works. He believed that African-American people should go back to their African roots, create art for their own people, and find pride in it. For that time, it was essential that the African-American community creates artworks that were specific to them as a race to give hope during the trying times.

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However, frequently this aspiration was seen as a selfish and greedy act merely to receive recognition. Elmaleh (2007) states, “Black art was increasingly judged on the basis of its apparent commitment to race and its capacity to achieve political and social power” (182). Nevertheless, the members of the Harlem Renaissance concluded it was necessary to pay more attention to the pressing issues of society and depict them in their works.

Lawrence denied the fictional element in his art focusing more on the historically accurate facts and the realistic image of African-American people. When he was twenty years old, he painted a series of panels portraying the African-American hero of Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture. This work consisted of forty-one paintings that described the life and deeds of the character. All the visual images revolved around Toussaint L’Ouverture and depicted his war against Spanish and French oppressors. The accurate representation of the struggle against slavery and tyranny without fictional elements earned Jacob Lawrence the title of “History Painter”. Later, he would incorporate the historical component and particular art style in the forthcoming works.

After the positive perception of the series, Lawrence decided to paint a more personal work, and thus The Migration Series was created. For Lawrence, the Great Migration was a familiar topic, as his parents also moved to the North in search of employment before he was born. Residing in the northern part of America, Lawrence observed the constant influx of African-American people from the South. He witnessed the hardships that they went through firsthand, and it inspired him to create his most fundamental work The Migration Series.

Lawrence presented the composition in 1941 at the age of twenty-three. The Migration Series consists of sixty panels that are labeled with numbers, scripted, and presented in a strict sequence. The first and the last panel depict African-American people in train stations, implying one unified pathway from the South to the North. All the paintings in the series are connected, and one should follow them in a fixed order to understand the narrative.

The main geographical topics of The Migration Series include the North, the South, and the peripheral locations, such as train and bus stations. In each location, African-American people encounter various types of inequity and hardships. Elmaleh (2007) states, “Three voices can be heard in his narrative, each coming from a different sociological geography and they simultaneously intone complementary songs” (184). Analyzing the panels, the differences among the regions become evident, and the subtext of the necessity of moving to the North emerges.

The Migration Series is a work primarily completed in a combination of rich and pastel colors, a variety of angular forms, and cubist elements. The color palette was limited to only a few hues, and the people were represented with no unique features, so it was impossible to distinguish one from another. Such patterns allowed Lawrence to recreate the atmosphere of migration with thousands of anonymous passers-by. The lack of violence in The Great Migration is another distinguishing trait of the works by Jacob Lawrence. Although the situations in real life were filled with brutality and struggle, the panels exposed only a needed minimum amount of violence to understand the narrative.

As to the position of Lawrence, he stated that The Migrations Series was a work that did not revolve around racial and ethnic differences. The composition was merely a story of African-American people moving from the South to the North, and it had no particular subtext. However, The Migration Series found both supporters and opposition, all of which perceived the composition as a more impactful image than a historical summary.

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The African-American community praised the work for giving voice to the minority and revealing the defects that the current society possessed. However, the vast majority of the American population rejected this idea. Elmaleh (2007) states, “at a time when ‘whiteness’ was the category of normative identity and most works by African American artists were hardly accepted as universal expressions of human experiences” (186). Thus, The Migration Series created a discussion between the African-American community and the vast white majority and had an enormous impact on American society.


Summing up, Eliane Elmaleh analyzed the position of Jacob Lawrence by studying the narrative of The Migration Series and addressed the implications caused by his work. According to Lawrence, his main purpose in art was to draw life as he saw it, but to the world, his paintings had an immense impact. American society perceived the work differently from the author and found the implications of a protest, which later provoked a dialogue between the African-American community and the majority of American citizens. Thus, Jacob Lawrence involuntarily became a representative for his people and proceeded to portray the hardships and discrimination that African-American people faced.

The works of Jacob Lawrence and The Migration Series itself are incredibly relevant for art history in general and specifically for the perception of art among African-American people. Along with other members of the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence revolutionized the approach to fine arts in the African-American community. Furthermore, The Migration Series is the most prominent work of this period of time and depicts the major and life-changing event at the start of the 20th century. The themes of struggle, oppression, and the necessity of migration raised by the composition will proceed to be significant for the visual arts in the African-American community for an extended period of time.

Elmaleh considerably succeeded at analyzing The Migration Series and the cultural and historical context around the composition and the African-American community. However, one might consider that the text lacks information about various art techniques, the analysis of the style, and a thorough depiction of the panels. Nevertheless, the main objectives did not include the evaluation of the work from the artistic point of view, thus the author has successfully achieved her goals and provided an adequate review of The Migration Series.


Elmaleh, Eliane. 2007. “Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series: A Pictorial Memory of Black America.” Revue LISA/ LISA E-Journal 5 (1): 180-195.

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