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Between image and word, color and time: Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series.

Jacob Lawrence canvasses tell pictorial stories, angular visions of fear and seeking and struggle and triumph.--Langston Hughes (qtd. in Spaulding 51)

"And the migrants kept coming. In 1941, Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, a visual narrative about the Great Migration of African Americans from the agrarian South to the industrialized cities in the North of the US, opened to much acclaim in Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York City. (1) It consists of 60 panels and a script of 60 short "captions" delineating this other tremendously significant yet often neglected American exodus story, which occurred in the wake of a virtually failed effort to "reconstruct" the American South after the Civil War. In Nicholas Lemann's estimation, the Great Migration has to be counted among "the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history": between 1910 and 1970 approximately six and a half million African Americans left the South for a "Promised Land" of mainly large urban centers--Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Pittsburgh, among others--where they could escape from the vicious cycles of the southern share-cropping economy and the legal and social strictures of Jim Crow (6). (2) Lawrence's Migration Series remains one of the most powerful representations of this other journey to a much-fabled "America of opportunity and freedom"; a journey, however, that did not traverse the world's oceans, but instead the very landscape, real and symbolic, of the US itself. Yet, although the majority of the migrants were bound for the most populous urban centers of the US, they were admitted neither to the promises of America nor to the very core of its narrative: in the "country of immigrants," with all the laden connotations this label implies, the exodus from the economically destitute regions of the South was not granted arrival in many ways.

Lawrence was acutely aware of the complexities of the Great Migration, its social and political as well as cultural implications. Moreover, he was a painter who worked very consciously in the space of historical elision. (3) His work not only deals with the Great Migration, but also with such seminal figures as Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. (4) It is therefore tempting to cast him as a "history painter." At first glance, the Migration Series, for which Lawrence uses both images and words to tell his story, seems to confirm this assessment, in particular because it is known that Lawrence spent much time in the 135th Street Branch of the Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), where he studied African American history in preparation for the Migration Series. And yet he has always struggled to escape from this constraining title. This struggle to escape constraint is especially the case in the context of the Migration Series, which he views as steeped in the orally transmitted stories engulfing him in the Harlem of his youth: "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. in Gates, "New Negroes" 20). As Lawrence points out, "I was a youngster and I heard these stories over and over again..." (Gates, "New Negroes" 20). Even the library he frequented so assiduously was not only a haven of books, but a place replete with orally transmitted tales. For this reason, Lawrence himself describes it as a most stimulating institution: it became "alive for us. I would hear stories from librarians about various heroes and heroines" (Hills, "Prints" 43). He not only absorbed the themes of these ubiquitous accounts, however, but absorbed also the performative textual practices through which they were delivered. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the very structure of his Migration Series has been profoundly influenced by the narrative strategies of oral literature, whose hallmark is a dynamic textuality that comes into existence through a lively exchange between teller and listener. The Migration Series is not a series of "history paintings," then, but a textual performance brimming with personal stories about the momentous experience of migration; differently put, it is a text of remembrance. (5)

However, Lawrence himself did not participate in the Great Migration he reconstructs. His mother was a domestic worker from Virginia, his father a cook from South Carolina. They had met each other in Atlantic City, where Jacob Lawrence was born (Wheat 25; Hills, "Migration" 145). During his youth, he relocated a number of times with his family until they eventually settled in Harlem, the eponymous city for the famous "renaissance" in letters and arts that has come to be cherished as one of the most stellar achievements of the cultural exchange between the South and the North. In light of recent historical research ascertaining that the relocation from the South often was not executed all at once, but took place in installments (see, for example, Moore 107; Hine 131), this move could justifiably be viewed as an indication of Lawrence's own experiences as a migrant. Yet the crucial point for this inquiry is that Lawrence aims to represent the Great Migration from the narrations of others. This mediation is especially the case as regards his portrayal of the South. Lawrence did not grow up in the rural South and thus had no experience of the region that became such an important theme in the Migration Series; in fact, he only embarked on a journey there after the completion of this work, when he honeymooned in New Orleans with Gwendolyn Knight, whom he married in 1941 (Wheat 63). Nonetheless, Lawrence clearly links himself to the migrants and their memories through an astounding moment of simultaneous recognition and inspiration: "I was a youngster and I heard these stories over and over again.... I didn't realize that we were even a part of that.... I didn't realize what was happening until about the middle of the 1930s, and that's when the Migration Series began to take form in my mind" (Gates, "New Negroes" 20).

The stories he heard while growing up, therefore, afforded him an intimate picture of the South that he did not know from personal experience (Wheat 25; Hills, "Migration" 145). Significantly, a careful reading of the Migration Series shows that Lawrence's attempt to work not simply from personal memory but from the memories of others does not remain exterior to his representational strategy; on the contrary, it takes center stage by unleashing the question of textuality, which is to say, the question of how to fashion text while revering the voices to which it is indebted. One can glean a sense of his precarious position, this belatedness vis-a-vis the personal experience of the Great Migration, in panel 58, which shows three African American school girls writing on a blackboard the numbers 2, 3, and 4 in ascending manner. Curiously, the girls do not begin at the beginning, as the first element of this sequence, the number 1, is conspicuously absent. Perhaps this lack is a moment when the Migration Series, rather than only commenting on improved educational opportunities, also gestures towards its own "median" time, its commencement in the middle of stories, where it is removed from the sight of the event, yet close to its word. The complicated temporality that arises from this fact and that is referenced in the missing number 1, betrays the Migration Series as a textual experiment far more complicated than a simple portrayal of a "historical" event. Thus, fashioning Lawrence into a "pictorial griot," a visual storyteller, or a rhapsode who sings in pictures, as Hills and Turner do, respectively, is appropriate, but only to a certain point (Hills, "Migration" 141; Turner 15). Such portraiture neglects the complexity of a text woven from other people's memories, their personal insights and astounding moments of recognition, and, last but not least, the historical accounts of the Schomburg library. It does not ask how Lawrence's text not only materializes but also reflects on its own complicated textuality in its attempt to portray the past of the Great Migration. In light of this neglect, I propose to view the Migration Series as a text of "auditory witnessing "offering a testimony of the ear rather than of the eye--instead of a serialized "history painting." (6) The complex temporality of the Migration Series infiltrates the text both thematically and formally, devising migratory reading/viewing space(s) in which various trajectories of the past, rather than simply the one named in its title, come to the fore. It is this "formal infiltration" of time that interests me in this essay. From this perspective, Lawrence's insistence on the series's investment in storytelling is notably trenchant, for it underscores that its narration is beholden not to the putative punctuality of the historical tract, but rather to a more unbridled mnemonic time.

To date, most commentary on the Migration Series has concentrated on the visual symbols of Lawrence's panels, which is to say, the representation of the Great Migration as theme. However, Lawrence's series does not merely narrate the past, but allows the past to emerge in its own peculiar temporal dispersal. In his Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, the 18th-century German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing famously theorized the encounter between the sister arts of poetry and painting as that between moving time and static time (19-22; 23-32), a distinction that has long been challenged, and yet leaves us with the vexing task of thinking, ever anew, temporality in representation, especially in pictorial narratives. It seems that the elaborate mimetic scheme of Lawrence's Migration Series narrates an erased part of US history (and not to be misunderstood, this task was and is a momentous one), and it offers a mimetic solution highly reflective of the conditions of its project and the possibility of narrating visually in general. Surprisingly, though, an engaged investigation into this question or, more narrowly construed, into the form--rather than the theme--of the Migration Series has been virtually absent from the critical discussion so far. (7) A number of reasons might account for this inattention. Scholars devoted to rendering visible the unacknowledged experiences of African Americans might view the concern with form as secondary to the important task of challenging the predominant narrative of US history. More troubling, though, is the sense that this discussion has not taken place, because the performative text of the Migration Series has been haunted by descriptors like "simple" and "naive," adjectives that seriously disserve the Migration Series. (8) From this perspective, critics both fail to appreciate the redoubled mimesis of the Migration Series as a sophisticated experiment, and, moreover, they do not comprehend that it attempts to paint/write a unique text of belated remembrance that recasts the link between what we, with much too great assurance, refer to as "the past" and "the present" in favor of a more daring articulation vis-a-vis the "historical" and its "artistic expression."

Approaching the Migration Series from the perspective of form is not at all an attempt to relegate it to the realm of pure aestheticism; instead, it is an effort to contest the entrenched form/ content dichotomy to open up a critical reading/ viewing space that manages to reconfigure the relation between the word and the image, and, more importantly, the relation between the viewer/reader and the representation of a specific past time. Lawrence's Migration Series tells a wilfully neglected story as much as it contests the eye and its culture. It unsettles not only our view of the Great Migration, but also our viewing of this story. As I will show, this dislodgement is carried out by the peculiar color scheme of the Migration Series. Hence, I suggest that Lawrence's Migration Series exhibits a "migration" that is more literal than its theme, more formal than its story, and more explicit than the list of "causes" that accompany the individual panels.

The Migration Series: Telling Word and Image

Ellen Harkins Wheat has speculated that Lawrence's use of redoubled narration, his decision to juxtapose image and text, was inspired by photojournalism, a fairly novel phenomenon in the 1930s (18). At first sight, the narrative structure of the Migration Series, which apparently relies on short verbal texts to "explain" the image, indeed seems "historical" or "factual"; the logic of the series, it appears, works to undercut the rhetoricity of both image and word in favor of a sober account that deliberately pulls up short the reading/viewing endeavor. Especially with the first panel, which shows a scene at the railroad station, and whose caption reads "During the World War, there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes," it seems as though the Migration Series gestures spectators to embark on a decoding operation that is familiar from news photographs. From this perspective, the script is there, as Roland Barthes has incisively phrased it, to sum up the semic play of the picture in a statement of "cardinal meaning" (26). Yet although the captions may be reminiscent of the explanatory code essential to photojournalism, their work reveals itself as much more complex: rather than the verbal instantiating meaning, it seems to undercut the putative sovereignty of its own performance for a more open relation. Consequently, to describe the Migration Series as a sequence of panels and "captions" is to erase its migratory textuality, its complex play of signification in favor of a simplified reading that has been stripped of much of its provocation.

Despite the fact that one can accrue examples in which the verbal and the visual cross each other in a tidy, "elucidating" knot (as in panel 9, in which the boll weevil mentioned in the script also appears in the image), it rather seems that the encounter between the word and the image is a relation of ever changing asymmetry. Often, the "caption" functions as a wide thematic embrace of the image, as in panel 2, which depicts a white man handling a piece of machinery on a set of fields. Despite this concentration on the imagistic level, the script expands its display to a much larger vision: "The World War had caused a great shortage in Northern industry and also citizens of foreign countries were returning home." Many other examples could be cited. In this light, the putative equidistance between panel and "caption," far from predictable and stable, is entirely up for negotiation. Ben Shahn, a contemporary of Lawrence, is a comparable figure in many respects: both painters emerge from a rich tradition of storytelling, and they share some artistic solutions. In working on a sequence of portraits about the famous Dreyfus Affair in France at the turn of the twentieth century, Shahn turned to "calligraphic narration" (Prescott 18); that is, he "signed" every painting with the name and rank of the person represented. As he explains, "Under each portrait I lettered in my best lithographic script a long or short legend setting forth the role which the original of the portrait had played in the celebrated affair" (Pohl 38; italics added). Shahn's diction is interesting, for it seems to invoke, without stating so explicity, multiple meanings of the term "legend": as the explanatory code on a map, but also an orally transmitted story from the past. Thus, to interrupt the neat crossing that the parlance of the "caption" implies, I propose, following Shahn's lead, to supplant the journalistic terminology with the slightly defamiliarized, polysemous term legenda with its rich connotations. Moreover, the etymological roots of legenda return us to an act of reading that implies the task of collecting (from the Latin legere, meaning "to read, gather, select"), a secondary meaning that is very apropos of Lawrence's work, which weaves story pieces together. The term legenda may remind us that Lawrence does not paint a tight embrace of photographs and captions; he paints a more diverse and changing relationality of images and words.

Moreover, in some cases, the verbal and the visual seem to bypass each other completely, leaving the viewer/ reader with the provocation of their unsettling discordance. Panels 15 and 16, which I henceforth refer to as the Lynching Sequence, constitute a case in point. Both deal with a lynching, albeit after the fact. Panel 15 shows a tree with an empty noose and a crouching figure in front of it; panel 16 takes us inside to a scene of mourning in which a woman, hunched over by grief in a pose of utter despondency, is resting her head on a table. (9) Despite the emotion conjured up in the lynching sequence, the text accompanying panel 16 in particular does not seem to register the murderous injustice of this death: "Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred." At this point, the transparency of the vertical relation between the verbal and the visual cleaves open, as the image seems to offer neither the decision to depart nor the distance of "being used" to an atrocious crime. Instead, it draws the eye to a female figure, literally bowed by a heinous act that the viewer/reader comes to witness belatedly through her. In this instance, the image thwarts the explanatory codification of the word; it refuses its imposition of meaning in favor of a referential discord that casts into disarray the purported link between the verbal and the visual: How can one ever "be used to" lynching? Significantly, the curious textuality of the lynching sequence is a far from anomalous occurrence in the Migration Series; on the contrary, it seems that it is precisely this frictional passage of meaning that functions as its underlying narrational principle. Once word and image have surrendered the mutual responsibility of cross-referencing the same signified, meaning--and consequently the story--seems to follow its own strange protocol. Its procedure does not bring the verbal and the visual into alignment; it rather relies on leaps of signification. What, then, is at stake in this stark maneuver, this provocative moment of unsettled viewing/reading in which the pain and injustice of an atrocious crime come to appear as if between panel and legenda?

The Migration Series: Telling Color

The alleged "simplicity" of the Migration Series also seems evidenced by the drastically reduced palette of mostly primary colors on which it relies. In fact, Lawrence's color code is a repetitive mode that accompanies the viewer/reader from the first panel to the last, as the same shades of green, red, yellow, blue, brown, and an incisive use of black are present throughout the entire series. Interestingly, Lawrence did not execute the Migration Series panel by panel, but color by color. This "color action," to appropriate a term from Josef Albers, a German emigre and former Bauhaus faculty member whom Lawrence met at the Black Mountain College in 1946, needed careful preparation. (10) Thus, Lawrence started his work on the Migration Series only after he had been able to procure a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund (Turner 14), which guaranteed him financial security and "a room of his own." Its basic palette, which I henceforth refer to as the "migration colors," does not remain with one object or figure, but wanders astray so as to inhabit the bright stockings and cheerful hat of a girl in departure (panel 27) at one moment, the absoluteness of Jim Crow segregation in an equally yellow fence (panel 49) in the next. As is not surprising for an artist to whom the modernist provocation to the grand illusion of painting is constantly present, Lawrence does not hesitate to rend asunder the pictorial handmaidens form and color. His "figurative modernism" or "expressive cubism," which Hills glosses as combining "non-illusionistic shapes and colors" with his social concern, has long given up on employing color as an attributive dimension (Hills, "Expressive" 15). However, the force of this unleashing has not been given its due: on the one hand, the questions it poses do not seem to arise because Lawrence's play with color is expected from a modernist painter; on the other hand, the brightness of the palette has been read symbolically, as indicative of the hope and striving manifested in the text (see, for example, Stewart 50; Gates, "New Negroes" 20). This reading ignores that Lawrence's unruly color migrations provide a strange continuity indeed: they couple, as we have seen, violence and injustice with the more positive aspects of departure. Hence, to read this palette as optimistic, which is to say, to place its signifying operations under the umbrella of a symbolic mode, means losing sight of the more subtle work that color performs. In this context, we should remind ourselves of the ambiguity of meaning inherent in the sometimes surprisingly upbeat slave idiom. Slave songs, as does the Migration Series, work with redoubled signification, albeit that of word and sound. Frederick Douglass offers a pertinent observation when he says that the deepest sorrow can be expressed in the most cheerful melody, "the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone" (qtd. in Gates, Signifying 67). If we view Lawrence's work as yet another instance of this specific mimetic duality, it is high time we considered his coloration schemes in light of this essential ambiguity.

Among others, Turner has also noted that Lawrence's careful use of color is a means to provide consistency and unity in a sprawling work (14). Although this contention is not to be disputed, the restrained palette of the Migration Series represents much more than the aspiration of aesthetic continuity, as the work of color exceeds its own putative formality. As we can glean from Lawrence's observations about his childhood, the colors themselves are steeped in the past, the time when "people coming up" with all their aspirations for a better life, found themselves in hostile urban landscapes scarred by the Great Depression. The color scheme he uses is in itself linked to a certain moment in time, thus historically specific:
 We lived in deep depression. Not only
 my mother, but the poor people in
 general. In order to add something to
 their lives, they decorated their tenements
 and their homes in all of these
 colors. I've been asked, Is anybody in
 my family artistically inclined? I've
 always said no, not realizing that my
 artistic sensibility came from this
 ambiance. I did have this influence,
 but I didn't realize it was taking place.
 It's only in retrospect that I realize that
 I was surrounded by art. (Gates, "New
 Negroes" 21)

What these reflections indicate is the sense that the very colors of the Migration Series are a mark of time in a very distinct sense: they register something about Depression-era Harlem through their bestowal of sight, through, as Lawrence explains, "my mother's way of seeing" and "my mother's friends, her contemporaries, my peers" (Gates, "New Negroes" 21). Before this imbued view of color, then, his "color action" becomes not only a sign of modernism and formal cohesion, but the very center of the narrated past of the Great Migration in multiple ways. For, as Galen A. Johnson explains, "color itself is a logos that gives us space, motion, time, and finitude, in short, color gives us the world" (169; italics added). The Migration Series engages precisely this "time" of color. In the lines quoted above, color itself flares up as the residual hue of a specific past. Moreover, in this text, which I have tried to identify as a text of remembrance rather than of history, its function is to open up a dimension of "depth." Color--despite its ostensible surface quality--makes representation "deep" by materializing the multiple temporalities of the Migration Series, by "making difference," the difference of time, within and between the words and images.

In this context, though, "depth" is not a "profound meaning" to be uncovered or unveiled; rather, color is of, as it were, an adjacent depth. It does not release an essence or event, but figures a tentative link, a differentiation that allows an alternative story to emerge. Panel 6 seems to illustrate this "color action" most poignantly: "The trains were packed continually with migrants" (see Fig. 1). The painting exhibits a train compartment filled with people and with Lawrence's migration colors. Under its logic of twoness, each bench unites two voyagers through the migration colors, thus reinforcing the resounding note of the communal, a prevalent theme in the Migration Series. The composition of this "packed train" with its appeal to collectivity nevertheless emphasizes what is single and singular: a woman in a yellow dress nursing a child. This moment could easily be overlooked; and yet it is clearly marked because this panel draws one's gaze to the nursing woman through a suitcase that is posited next to her. It is this suitcase, significantly placed on the "steps" (really the floor boards) of what has been promised as the better life beyond the borders of the US South, which crystallizes the chromatic action that is so essential to Lawrence's representational technique. The panel shows the suitcase flung open. Yet what it reveals are not distinct objects but bands of color: all the shades of this compartment and thus the chromatic range that I have called the "migration colors." There is no shortage of luggage in a series whose quintessential theme is relocation, but the valise in panel 6 is a unique occurrence, as it is the only one that is flung open. It is the only one that does not encase, but disclose. What it adds by offering yet another repetition of the "migration colors" is, literally as well as figuratively, depth. As Merleau-Ponty alerts us, color "has the merit of getting somewhat nearer to the 'heart of things,' but this heart is beyond the color envelope, just as it is beyond the space envelope" (181). (11) The depth of color is, thus, not a hidden meaning, but an elsewhere, a gesture beyond itself, passing something on.

The wide open suitcase reveals not only color but something else: the aforementioned image of a woman nursing her child, this anomalous occurrence whose precondition is the suitcase with its aperture of colors (see Fig. 1). Panel 6 encases, albeit in the manner of transposed adjacency, this maternal scene. Arguably, Toni Morrison's Beloved, itself a text of many migrations, has much to say about this image. In writing a novel that has slavery as its heartbeat, Morrison tackles the most essential and brutal site of bondage, the body of the female slave, whose existential time was radically redefined as the cycle of reproduction. Maternity is one of the most laden aspects of African American history because it often spelled love and sexual coercion in one breath, as is powerfully elaborated in the figure Sethe in Morrison's Beloved. Moreover, it spelled the impossibility of claiming one's child since the female slave has been bereaved of the right to function as a parent, as Hortense Spillers has trenchantly articulated it (78). The terror of slavery (the logic of its labor, its racial metaphysics, its scheme of "love" as coerced reproduction) met frontally with the uprooted world of the slaves and the desire to make their existence their own, at least infinitesimally. It is in view of this past that the repetition of the migration colors in the suitcase becomes extensive as a possible linking. The compartment of this particular train is serene; the motion of the migrants has come to a halt, focused on a woman nursing her child in the yellow and white colors that might be understood as hinting at a bright future. However, encased in this image (in the suitcase) is also the memory of the forced maternity of slavery.

The legenda begins to hint that there is an entirely other time at play in this journey: "The trains were continually packed with migrants" (italics added). Surprisingly, this sense of dense space does not fully transpire from Lawrence's panel, especially because the image is generous towards the centrality of the floor or "steps." What the notion of "packed" can refer to, though, as if it were operating in spite of itself and its referentiality in an instance of derailed meaning, is the chromatic action of the suitcase in that it conjures up the time of another translocation, a forced emigration when, in fact, the journey was inhumanely tight: the middle passage. Color seems to crack the word packed and to provoke its greater extension, one that reaches beyond the level of the legenda and into a different past. What the suitcase enacts, then, is a repetition that gives way to another story-possibility that becomes rearticulated, swept to the surface, in the narrative about the Great Migration. In this panel, it evokes the story of the forced relocation of slavery. Yet this repetition is not only deep, but in itself displaced, caught in the adjacency of multiple signs. Thus, the suitcase reveals and dislocates by giving way to the adjacent image of the nursing mother. This divulgence lies at the heart of Lawrence's unique strategy of representation: he employs the word and the image--moreover words and images that have become familiar--towards generating what can be viewed as a disjunctive conjunction. The verbal sign packed, like the suitcase, reaches into the past; yet its story does not emerge as a fully fledged counternarrative. It proceeds through the continuous manipulation of the link that has suddenly become malleable and variously extensive, ever "in search" of the adjacent depth that has taken the place of the transparent story-surface. (12) In the Migration Series, through their disjunctive conjunction, the word and the image lose their putative totality. They become undone, as if encircling each other with quotation marks, to enable the complex and rich crossings of signification that reveal the Migration Series as a text of multiple temporalities and voices. In this sense, word and image only ever establish a fragile, parenthetical embrace delineating another story, or even other stories, as a small aperture of time.

Strikingly, in panel 7, and it forms a singular occurrence in the entire series, color has taken over completely. It subsumes all people and objects, therefore apparently all referentiality, into its sheer "chromatic action." According to Patricia Hills, the chromatic tumult of this panel suggests the "moving eye looking out over fluttering ribbons of color that are the fields of crops" ("Migration" 149). We have already established, however, that color itself does not remain in its place in the Migration Series and that its migrations are essential to the link between the past and the present that Lawrence aims to establish. The legenda to panel 7 reads: "The Negro, who had been part of the soil for many years, was now going into and living a new life in the urban centers." What Lawrence articulates cautiously and by way of understated circumlocution can be seen as harboring yet another gesture to the days of slavery, when "being part of the soil" denoted bondage and forced labor. As Farah Jasmine Griffin writes in "Who Set You Flowin'?" : The African-American Migration Narrative, the South is "on the surface a land of great physical beauty and charm, but beneath it lay black blood and decayed bodies" (16). The cotton field has long been emblematic for slavery and was developed into a rich, albeit ambiguous, image in slave narratives. Thus, the perhaps surprising tranquility of this legenda, which does not make reference to the violence associated with the cotton field, this reticence vis-a-vis a brutal story, is juxtaposed to a panel that is in utter turmoil, because it does not "figure" any more but instead confronts the viewer with a chaos of colors. At this precarious moment Lawrence puts the migration colors to work one more time. Yet he does not use them in the familiar tonal qualities; Instead, he reworks them by fashioning them into a "chromatic rhyme," as it were. They are given more "light," especially because the color black is not as dense and prominent as in other panels. Thus, they yield a brighter panel featuring a color scheme that stands out in the Migration Series. (Significantly, it is repeated in panels 8, 9, and 13, all of which focus on the cotton fields.) The "illuminated rhyme" of panel 7 is remarkable in a text that seems to have little use for light and shadow and their effect in the pictorial illusion. The risk of this chromatic rhyme constitutes a dissonance between the verbal and pictorial tones that have settled into a specific repetitive scheme. The migration colors have become lighter, thus drawing attention to themselves and the break of continuity they enact. They repeat the migration story, partaking of its specific system of signs and the narrative it relates, but add another dimension to it, something that exceeds the transport of meaning and tradition in the interaction between word and image; something within and at the same time beyond the "color envelope."

Panel 7 suggests that its illuminated colors are endowed with a measure of "depth"--a depth conveying a possibility in what has remained obscure in the purity of the reds, greens, yellows, blues, and browns of the Migration Series (see Fig. 2). In Lawrence's subtle procedure of repetition, panel 7 offers itself as a reworking of the preceding occurrence of the suitcase. As we have seen in our discussion of panel 6, the colors, encased as they are in the suitcase, lead us into an adjacent depth. Paradoxically, therefore, color, commonly understood as the meeting point between object and light and as a function of surface action (see, for example, Kahnweiler 254), surrenders this dimension of superficiality and appears as that which can be found in the depth of things, or rather, that which is their depth. (13) The suitcase full of colors refrains from figuration but gives way to the woman and her child. It serves as a link to the institution of slavery from the perspective of the feminine self. Panel 7 renders this form of "chromatic action" even more intense by spilling the content of the suitcase, thus yielding, streaming, and weaving color. Hence, the very moment that potentially speaks clearest of slavery is also the painting's most tacit and abstract moment. On the one hand, the turmoil of panel 7 can be understood as a moment of halted signification when the word refuses to pass at the very heart of the story of migration and slavery, a refusal that Paul Gilroy has called the "slave sublime" (187-224); on the other hand, the inner dimension of streaming colors forms the obscurity of the temporal instant that the legenda is speaking about and that lies at the heart of the Migration Series at large as its other urgent stories. Panel 7 and its legenda allude to migration as the conjunction of multiple temporalities, an event or act that is not a point in time, but a knot of many times: it gestures towards the past of coerced field labor or, after "Emancipation," of economic slavery ("being part of the soil") as well as towards the volatile "present past" of departure ("The Negro [...] was now going"). Hence, in Lawrence's text, the past, and specifically the past of the Great Migration, is not a monolith of temporal equidistance, but appears as dispersed in a multiplicity of intersecting "times." One could say, then, that the past is itself always in departure as the shards and fragments of other possible temporal trajectories.


Significantly, color participates in the migration story on its own terms. Even when illuminated, "mixed with light," as it is in Panel 7, color is never the exteriority of a veneer of pigment. Instead, it epitomizes the representational mode of adjacent depth that the Migration Series insists on by enabling yet another departure within the larger trajectory of its story. In his Zur Farbenlehre (Color Theory), an 1810 treatise on the phenomenon of color, the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe pauses over a linguistic difference between his native German and the French when it comes to conveying the idea of changing or mixing colors. Goethe's theories, to be sure, are the subject of a heated debate to this very day; however, the moment I want to seize on is a cross-cultural reflection on language that can help articulate the link between panels 6 and 7. In the section entitled "Chemical Colors," he suggests that what is usually referred to as "mixing" or "dyeing" can be more usefully thought of as a "turning" ("von einer Seite nach der anderen wenden," "to turn over," "to turn from one side to the other"); thus, he literalizes the idea of changing colors in a way that is also possible from the perspective of English. This translation leads Goethe to propose a certain "mobility" for color: "To express this appearance in dyeing, the French make use of the word virer, to turn from one side to the other; they thus very adroitly convey an idea which others attempt to express by terms indicating the component hues" (XL.532; Ach 142). From this perspective, the brighter palette of colors in panel 7 has not been subjected to gradation; it has, in keeping with this thought of color mobility, turned another way, enacted the "hither and thither" (XL.531; Ach 142) that Goethe espouses instead of the thought of chromatic continuity. Something comparable to this virer apparently constitutes the depth of color in the Migration Series: its action is not that of a seamless link through gradation, but one of flipping over, a change of direction as much as a turning of the page ("Seite" denotes "side," but also "page" in German). In the context of this investigation, it is also tempting to view it as the page of a new story and its double inscription on front and back. Color seems to be leaping rather than changing, unexpectedly throwing open another temporal frame, another possible story of the past, once images and words have been allowed to circulate more freely.

As indicated in the representational maneuver of the suitcase, the chromatic action of the Migration Series participates in its narration not as "means" or attribute, but as possible link. It is a linking, however, that does not allow the past to emerge as a fully articulated narrative, but that opens up--by turning "here and there"--a gap that provokes stories about other pasts. Although Lawrence's text, in particular its legendae, may seem simplistically understated, the frictional passage of meaning between the word and the image reveals that the past of the Migration Series is actually a narrative of many pasts. Despite the series's apparent historical punctuality, its temporal frame is much greater, as it encompasses also the catastrophic temporalities of a past that reaches far into the forced dispersal across the Atlantic Ocean as well as back to the racial metaphysics and practice of slavery in America. In the Migration Series, a story told from the later time of remembrance, chromatic action becomes temporal action. The suitcase of color does not recount the story of slavery, but it reveals it as an adjacent possibility. Thus, the "linking," which denotes the very moment of signification, the sign and icon "at work" and "working," is not so much relation understood as complete conjunction, but as delineating an aperture. Color is a profound surface; it meanders across a variety of figures and signs to inhabit the bright stockings of a departing girl at one moment, the legalized discrimination of Jim Crow in the next. Due to these vagaries, color, in the end, refuses to be enlisted for its symbolic value in the Migration Series. Moreover, despite its linking operation, it remains the unassimilable residue that no story can accommodate entirely. Chromatic action figures temporal instants that emerge in repetition as other possible stories. Color, as it were, "turns on itself" to reveal the temporal expanse of this memory text and the "packed suitcases" of its many migrations.

The Migration Series: Telling the Story

I will conclude this investigation into the Migration Series with what is perhaps the most provocative adjacency of all: the performance of panel 60, the last panel. In essence, the serial form of the Migration Series, as I have argued with respect to Lawrence's use of color, is a mechanics of repetition. This repetitive character, however, can also be seen in its overall design because Lawrence uses an antiphonal structure, a pictorial and verbal call-and-response pattern. (15) In fact, the Migration Series is anchored in a concatenation of what could be called "migration refrains" with specific panels and legendae (18, 23, 40, 60) echoing the image and words of panel 1 (see Fig. 2) throughout the entire sequence. By availing himself of the distinctive textuality of sermons in African American churches and, of course, jazz music, Lawrence nods one more time to the oral tradition of tales that is so central to the Migration Series.

Panel 60, with which the Migration Series closes, is part of these "migration refrains" (see Fig. 3). Interestingly, it is precisely during the "migration refrain" that the Migration Series seems to be most general in its portrayal of "people on the move." All these panels display groups of people hurrying across the panel with their luggage. They express motion and determination rather an individual story, just as their respective legendae suggest. In this sense, they remain the plurality of "the migrants" whose profiles crisscross the visual surfaces in front of us. In his Words and Pictures: On the Literal and Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text, Meyer Schapiro points out that the frontal view and the profile are artistic forms of eminent importance, as they can serve to articulate, visually, difference in rank, as in western medieval depictions of the Last Supper (44). Despite Schapiro's legitimate caution against subsuming the play of profile and frontality under one western derived model of explanation, he offers an insight that seems to fit Lawrence's text: "The profile face is detached from the viewer and belongs with the body in action (or in an intransitive state) in a space shared with the profiles on the surface of the image. It is broadly speaking like the grammatical form of the third person, the impersonal 'he' or 'she" with its concordantly inflected verb" (italics added). This explanation is an excellent gloss for the "migration refrain" panels. They all tell a story about the Great Migration, a narrative whose subjects remain somehow detached in their pronominal occurrence. However, in the end, the Migration Series profoundly challenges this distance.


Panel 60, "And the migrants kept coming," belongs to the series of color and word refrains that has been the antiphonal constant accompanying the viewer/reader's experience of the text. Thus, the Migration Series ends as and where it was begun: with a scene at the railroad station in the characteristic migration colors, but the ending provides a profound difference: the faces that have always hurried past as the impersonal profiles of people on the move, have suddenly turned around to gaze back at the spectator in full frontality. This return glance forms the first and only one in the entire text. The Migration Series, told in images and words that insistently utilize the third-person perspective, performs the last occurrence of the "migration refrain" as an apostrophe to the viewer/reader.

Thus, a subject has made its appearance, undercutting a narrative positioned vis-a-vis the averted gaze of the third person. Schapiro understands the shift from profile to frontal view as a shift in pronouns. He observes that "the face turned outwards is credited with intentness," but, moreover, that it "corresponds to the role of 'I' in speech, with its complementary 'you'" (39). Lawrence does not change the refrain--"And the migrants kept coming"--but he unsettles its meaning by entering it in a different mode of communication, one that coaxes the "you" in front of the panel into a rather tenuously articulated subject position. It is in the last panel that Lawrence's representational strategy reveals itself as most indebted to the performative quality of "oral literature," which implicates the "I" of the narrator and the "we" of the listeners in a story that unfolds as performed text in and through their interaction. 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. Like the migration colors, whose "vision" reaches an early intensification in panels 6 and 7, the tacit climax of the legendae, and especially the refrain, lies in the apostrophe of the very end: the migrants' faces seem to authorize a "you."

The striking transformation of the last panel is, however, not novel, as it climaxes the migrants and their colors in a gesture of double signification. It retroactively reveals the Migration Series to be steeped in the oral tradition of the Harlem community and its literary forms ("I heard stories about families coming up [...]") and fosters an instantaneous collective in the pictorial-rhetorical address to the viewer/ reader. This last display of adjacent depth is the most emphatic, the last repetition that discloses subjectivity in the apostrophe to an invisible "you." The final panel relocates the terms of proximity: it arrests the migratory reading/viewing act that the Migration Series elicits by showing us a negative image of the "you" before its exhibit. This moment of belated remembrance, is spelled out, as it were, in the text itself and not in the exteriority of the handed-down tale; for the "you" can also be its painter, the "auditory witness" of the Great Migration who participates not in its event, but in its word. The "you" addressed in the last panel remains undefined, and yet forcefully implied as a relation. As Lawrence himself said: "I didn't realize that we were even part of that.... I didn't realize what was happening until about the middle of the 1930s, and that's when the Migration Series began to take form in my mind."--"And the migrants kept coming."

Works Cited

Albers, Joseph. Interaction of Color. Text of the Original Edition with Selected Plates. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.

Barthes, Roland. "The Photographic Message. "Image, Music, Text. Sel. and Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bearden, Romare, and Henny Henderson. A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

Bowen, Barbara E. "Untroubled Voice: Call and Response in Cane." Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen, 1984. 187-203.

Brown, Milton. Jacob Lawrence. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974.

Bunch, Lonnie G., and Spencer R. Crew. "A Historian's Eye: Jacob Lawrence, Historical Reality, and the Migration Series." Turner 23-32.

Calame, Claude. The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janice Orion. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.

Foti, Veronique M., ed. and trans. Medeau-Medeau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. Atlantic Highlands, N J: Humanities P, 1996.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

--. "New Negroes, Migration and Cultural Exchange." Turner 17-21. Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Zur Farbenlehre (Color Theory). 1810. Goethe's Color Theory. Ed. Matthaei, Rupprecht. Trans. Herb Ach. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. "Who Set You Flowin'?": The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Haar, Michael. "Painting, Perception, Affectivity." Foti 177-93.

Hills, Patricia. = Jacob Lawrence's Expressive Cubism." Wheat 15-19.

--. "Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: Weavings of Pictures and Texts." Turner 141-54.

--. "The Prints of Jacob Lawrence: Chronicles of Struggles and Hopes." Jacob Lawrence: Thirty Years of Prints (1963-1993). Ed. Peter Nesbett. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1994. 15-18.

Hine, Darlene Clark. "Black Migration to the Urban Midwest: The Gender Dimension, 1915-1945." Trotter 127-46.

Johnson, Galen A. "Thinking in Color: Medeau-Ponty and Paul Klee." Foti 169-76.

Kahnweiler, Daniel-Henry. "The Rise of Cubism." Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Ed. Hershel B. Chipp. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. 248-59.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. 1766. Trans. Edward Allen McCormick. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.

Medeau-Ponty, Maurice. "Eye and Mind." The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Ed. James M. Edie. Trans. Carleton Dallery. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1964.

Moore, Shirley Ann, "Getting There, Being There: African-American Migration to Richmond, California, 1910-1945." Trotter 106-26.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1987.

Nesbett, Peter T., and Michelle Dubois, eds. Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence and Jacob Lawrence: A Catalogue Raisonne. 2 vols. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2000.

Pohl, Frances K. Ben Shahn With Ben Shahn's Writings. San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1993.

Prescott, Kenneth W., ed. Ben Shahn. A Retrospective 1898-1969. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1969.

Saussure, Ferdinand De. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. London: Peter Owen, 1974.

Schapiro, Meyer. Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.

Sims, Lowery Stokes. "The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence's Builders Paintings, 1946-1998." Nesbett and Dubois 201-15.

Spaulding, Val, ed. "Jacob Lawrence Special Issue." Black Art, An International Quarterly 5.3 (1982).

Spillers, Hortense. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.

Stewart, Jeffrey C. "(Un)Lockeing Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series." Turner 41-52.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Turner, Elizabeth Hutton, ed. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Washington, DC: Rappahannock P, 1993.

Wheat, Ellen Harkins. Jacob Lawrence: American Painter. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1986.


(1.) For all biographical information, if not indicated otherwise, I am indebted to Wheat. See also Bearden and Henderson, as well as Nesbett and Dubois.

(2.) Lawrence's Migration Series focuses on a South-North trajectory, although the Great Migration was a much more encompassing phenomenon, involving also the relocation of West Indians and Africans from the South and other economically depressed areas. Moreover, it did not strictly lead to "the North," but also to the urban centers of the US South and West. For further information, see Lemann and also Trotter. The latter is especially important because it focuses on the agency of the migrants and on gender and class differences within the migration experience.

(3.) For a historical perspective on the Migration Series, see Bunch and Crew.

(4.) Lawrence's work is very broad: he has also painted the Native American Community (Celebration of Heritage, 1992) and the devastating impact of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima (Hiroshima, 1983).

(5.) I use the term text in the broadest possible sense as a signifying structure involving the visual, the verbal and the space of apparent indetermination between them. Although I employ text to denote the composite performance of Lawrence's Migration Series, I will maintain the duality of a viewer/reader figure for the addressee of his text so as not to subsume the different acts of engaging visual and verbal signs under one overarching paradigm of "reading."

(6.) I borrow this term from Calame, who uses it, albeit in an entirely different context, to describe the strategy of Herodotos's historical project, which distinguishes, textually, between eye witness accounts and received accounts (82).

7. In their introduction to Over the Line, Nesbett and Dubois single out a contribution by Lowery Stokes Sims as "the most in-depth discussion of the formal qualities of Lawrence's work that has been published to date" (12).

(8.) Brown, to cite but one scholar, characterizes Lawrence's script as exhibiting a "primer-like simplicity, as if written for black schoolchildren" (11). See also Wheat 18. Hills, for one, has begun to investigate the written script more closely and also sees it as steeped in the oral tales that constitute, in part, its source (Hills, "Migration" 148).

(9.) Griffin also comments on the missing body in panel 15. She views this omission as emphasizing the act of lynching "not [as] the horror of one single individual, but the horror, the shame, and the burden of the land" (13). Although I emphasize a different point in my reading, Griffin's observation is germane to my larger argument.

(10.) Albers theorized color as the "most relative medium in art." He aimed, by way of trial and error, to teach his students not a systematics of color-the rules of color harmony-but color as effect: "this means, specifically, seeing color action as well as feeling color relatedness" (1). I use the term (later as "chromatic action") to establish color as dynamic, "migrating" in the Migration Series, and to emphasize it as, quite literally, "acting." Lawrence credits Albers as being profoundly influential on his work.

(11.) The articulation "heart of things" is taken from Paul Klee's Journals (qtd. in Merleau-Ponty 181).

(12.) This thought is based on Saussure's rigorous reinterpretation of the sign that emphasizes the associative link between the signifier and the signified as the instant of meaning.

(13.) The notion of color as a "depth phenomenon" has a powerful precedent in Paul Cezanne's assumption that colors do not reveal the surface but "the roots of the world.... To descend unto the dark, tangled roots of things; to rise up again with colors" (qtd. in Haar 185). Although I do not follow Cezanne's pantheistic and quasi-mystical interpretation of chromatic depth, his attempt to undermine the conception of colors as "superficial" has prompted me to reconsider Lawrence's use of color as statements of profundity.

(14.) All illustrations are taken from Turner. It is noteworthy that Lawrence himself saw it necessary to substitute the term "African American" in places where he used the word "Negro" in 1940-41 (Turner 165). I use his original script, because it preserves the discourse of its own time and because the Migration Series is usually exhibited and reproduced as the original text.

(15.) Regarding the call-and-response pattern and its collective function in African American traditions, Bowen states: "For the blues singer, the importance of the call-and-response pattern is its continual affirmation of collective voice. As antiphonal phrases repeat and respond to each other, the singers are assenting to membership in a group and affirming that their experience is shared" (189).

Jutta Lorensen is Assistant Professor of German, English, and Comparative Literature at Penn State University, Altoona College. She is interested in second-generation remembrance and is currently completing a book project tentatively entitled "Epitaphic Remembrance: Representing a Catastrophic Past in Second Generation Texts."
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Author:Lorensen, Jutta
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Date:Sep 22, 2006
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