For over a half century, Jacob Lawrence has stuck to his last: the careful and continuous delineation of the experience of being black in America. Yet he has always flinched at the category, black American painter. He has always aspired to picture universal human truths by attending carefully to the details of his own experiences.
When I asked him in Seattle if he still bristles at being so dubbed, he was philosophical: “If people want to call me a black American painter, it’s OK with me, so long as they don’t miss what I’m up to; pursuing a universal humanism from within the experiences life has given me.”
When I think of his remarkable achievement, two things always come to mind: character and endurance. There is a strength in the way, to paraphrase William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, he has not only endured, he has prevailed.
Think of his unpromising start—born in Atlantic City on September 7th, 1917, son of a railroad cook, he never really knew a stable family experience. When his father abandoned his mother in 1924, Jacob and his two siblings were placed in a Philadelphia settlement house for three years and for another three years in a foster home.
His mother sought work as a domestic in Harlem and in 1930 moved the family to New York City where she was off and on welfare during the grim Depression years. She enrolled Jacob in the arts and crafts program at the Utopia Children’s Center—fearful of what could happen to him on the streets.
Jacob was not much given to the rough-and-tumble of street games, and soon found the treasure house of the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library—what is now the Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, the most important collection of black study materials in the world.
In the afterglow of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, he discovered that his abused people had a proud history. He was thrilled to overhear writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay talk about that amazing efflorescence of self-awareness. But he was not provincial in his interests.
There is something epic in his walking the 60 blocks between his Harlem home and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he studied medieval painters like Giotto, eager to do for the life around him what the Italian medieval painter had achieved for his times.
His first significant achievement—a suite of portraits of everyday life in Harlem—appeared when he wasn’t yet 20. Flat forms, pure colors and reduced details prefigured his mature style. He exhibited under the auspices of the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild at the Harlem YMCA. Although he took classes at the federally-supported Harlem Arts Workshop, he couldn’t join the WPA artist support program until he turned 21.
He had already conceived and started work on his first narrative suits, a 41-panel exploration of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the man who organized the first successful black revolution in the Western Hemisphere, the overthrowing of French colonialism in Haiti. He had seen W.E.B. Dubois’ play Haiti at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, and he researched the subject further at the Schomburg Collection.
It was an opportune-time to aspire to greatness in public art. There was black artist Aaron Douglas’s mural cycle, “Aspects of Negro Life,” at the 135th Street Library, which young Lawrence haunted for intellectual sources. There were Diego Rivera’s murals at the Rockefeller Center as well as the Orozco sequence for the New School of Social Research.
From the library he was discovering the invisible Negro past he wanted to “publish”: from the WPA ateliers and the Mexican muralists he was finding the medium for his message. Thinking back about his first major achievement, the Toussaint sequence, Lawrence recalled:
“I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools . . . My first real introduction to Negro history was when I was very young, I imagine—when a Mr. Allen spoke on it at Utopia House. He spoke about Toussaint L’Ouverture . . .
“I do my research first; read the books and take notes. I may find it necessary to go through my notes three times to eliminate unimportant points . . . Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world. I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic one. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly could do the same thing.” (Ellen Harkins Wheat, Jacob Lawrence: American Painter (Seattle Art Museum, 1986.)
In short, Lawrence looked to history for means to free himself and his people. “How will it come about?” he asked himself rhetorically. “I don’t know. I’m not a politician. I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about . . . There’s so much to do, there’s never any trouble to find subjects.”
It is remarkable that an artist could find his métier so early in his career. Another characteristic part of the Lawrence signature also appeared early—captioning, using words to illuminate the narrative images. Ellen Wheat shrewdly speculates that photojournalism (Life began publication in 1936) probably gave him the notion of captioning.
But the didacticism he has fine-tuned for 50 years is an idiosyncratic amalgam of any and every thing that will further his program: making American blacks aware of the dignity of their past. And he’s no Pollyanna. There is a sting in those captions:
“As a child, Toussaint heard the twang of the planter’s whip and saw blood stream from the bodies of slaves.”
In 1938, he started the Frederick Douglass series, one of which he captioned: “The master of Douglass, seeing he was of a rebellious nature, sent him to a Mr. Covey, a man who had built up a reputation as a ‘nigger breaker’. A second attempt to flog Douglass was unsuccessful. This was one of the most important incidents in the life of Frederick Douglass. He was never attacked again by Covey. His philosophy: A slave easily flogged is flogged oftener—a slave who resists flogging is flogged less.”
One thing I’ve discovered from this retrospective is the brilliant use the painter makes of the English language: He is terse, aphoristic, eloquent in his almost Biblical simplicity. I don’t think critics have fully appreciated the remarkable power of his prose, so dazzled have their eyes been by his paintings proper.
Jacob Lawrence Retrospective: At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, through November 28.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 25, 1987