In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just twenty-three years old, made a series of sixty 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. 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, D.C., each institution acquiring thirty panels. The Migration Series is now a landmark in the history of modern art.
Published in conjunction with exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art and at The Phillips Collection, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series grounds the work in the cultural and political debates that shaped his art and demonstrates its relevance for artists and writers today. Leah Dickerman situates the series within contemporary discussions about black history and an artist's social responsibilities. Elsa Smithgall traces the acquisition and exhibition history of the Migration Series. 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. The book also includes eleven 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.