I’ve read The Warmth of Other Suns and “The Weary Blues,” heard Billie sing “Strange Fruit,” looked at scenes of Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s – and of sharecroppers, former slaves and younger folk, in the fields of the Cotton Belt. Pieces of “One-Way Ticket” have touched my life over the years. Nothing prepared me for the impact of seeing it all in one place, all at one time. The mix of music, paintings, photographs, books, video, overwhelms. The MoMA exhibit leaves no doubt about the horror and privation that drove African Americans from the South. At the same, it creates an image of their sometimes harsh, occasionally welcoming experiences in northern cities, mostly Harlem.
The exhibit offers us all a much better understanding of what my father went through when he arrived in Harlem from the Bayou as a boy, and what my mother saw when she arrived nearly twenty years later from sea- and wind-blown lily white O.S. My parents encountered buildings that seemed to lean in on one, a cacophony of noises and chaotic transportation, smells of rotting garbage and excrement. But it also offered up jazz clubs and exotic food and a mix of people beyond just black and white. The whole scene makes far more sense now.
The anchor for the exhibition is Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series.” They are sixty panels painted on hardboard with cassein, which gives them a more granular texture, very different from oil or water color on canvas. The block-y figures balance with delicate detail to create magical realism, though the magic is often of the ungentle sort. All of them are haunting, often silhouettes against earth and sky, or packed tight in waiting rooms and train cars.
The rest of the exhibit includes photographs of musicians with a discription of their lives, works by Romare Beardon, and other artists, along with evocative and startling photographs.
They were taken by men and women, some famous, some less familiar to the general public. I found the work of Morgan and Marvin Smith appealing because they were friends of my parents. The two men (nothing distinguishes who took what) captured Adam Clayton Powell Jr. leading the “Do Not Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign in the streets of Harlem. It is a chaotic, energetic contrast to the simple starkness of Ben Shahn’s “Picking Cotton Pulaski County, Arkansas,” (1935). This photo depicts a sad-faced young woman, caught in the act of straightening or bending to the boll.
Two things startle: With few exceptions the travelers in the “Migration,” no matter how poor, dress formally in coats and ties or dresses. Likewise the photographs of people in Harlem show people clad in much more formal wear than we see today. And, despite the latent and blatant violence of much of the work, I don’t recall a single gun except in the hands of law enforcement.
While nothing can rival the impact of viewing all sixty of Lawrence’s panels at once, I’ve singled out three that gripped me. Lawrence wrote a caption for each panel when he painted them and updated the text for an exhibition in 1993.
Two panels contain no figures, just mute tributes to what the migration left behind. The third needs no comment.