Last weekend, the New York Times published a thing it's calling "the first-ever Art Issue of The New York Times Book Review." There’s more to say about it, but what caught my eye was a piece about a new art catalogue put out by the Museum of Modern Art, written by The Warmth of Other Suns author Isabel Wilkerson.
Okay, look: The Warmth of Other Suns is the definitive history of the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North between 1915 and 1975. It changed my entire view of the United States of America. It made me understand things I never understood before. It made me marvel at how much history gets lost between the bookends of slavery and Civil Rights. Reading this book was like that drunken night when you finally get to know somebody, except the somebody is your country. (Happy July 4th gift!)
What Wilkerson writes about MoMA's book is, basically, that she wishes it told the actual migration stories of Rosa Lee and Jacob Lawrence Sr., and that it's more for an art audience than a general one. You're better off looking at the art than the book, she concludes. The book contains 10 new poems by living poets, and otherwise, just writing by the two curators, neither of whom are descendants or particular scholars of the Migration itself.
From Wilkerson's review (emphasis mine):
His parents’ separate journeys north led to his existence and gave him his first exposure to the phenomenon that would become his legacy. Had they toiled in the fields, or known of those who had been lynched? In which cold-water tenements had his family lived out what he would one day portray on gesso? What fears and longings might they have passed on to their eldest son that would stoke a passion to convert the epic and the intimate into tempera for the world to see? These are questions that might have given insight into how an artist could so thoroughly inhabit something so large at so young an age and, through lived experience and focused devotion, become not only an artist but a documentarian, a sociologist and a historian, able to see past the midpoint of the movement into the present day. His final panel accurately predicted that the migration would continue. And his first panel, a depiction of migrants rushing toward trains destined for “Chicago,” “New York” and “St. Louis,” seems prophetic in the age of Ferguson.
I had to wonder, has anybody told those stories?
I called Barbara Earl Thomas, the Seattle artist who was like a daughter to Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight.
Lawrence and Knight lived their final decades in Seattle after having met in 1930s Harlem, where they both lived. I was lucky to get to spend an afternoon with Knight in 2003, interviewing her in her sunny little apartment for an exhibition of her work at Tacoma Art Museum. (Twelve years later, Knight's painting of a pregnant woman would rise up to greet me in a hospital hallway where I stopped to throw up on the floor, then looked up to see the steadying painting as my next contraction hit.) Seattle Art Museum now awards the Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize (which this year goes to Brenna Youngblood, who'll show at SAM from November 13 to April 17, 2016). MoMA's exhibition lasts through September 7, and then in 2016, all 60 panels will be shown at the Phillips Collection in D.C.
I asked Thomas what she knows about Lawrence's parents, if he ever talked about them. She explained that he was born in New Jersey, his parents separated when he was young, and he went into foster care as a teenager. Both Lawrence and Knight, whose mother sent her from her home in Barbados to the U.S. with another family when she was young, were city kids. Lawrence's family was especially poor, and he didn't get much time to hear the stories of his parents' lives. In that way, Lawrence and Knight shared certain traits with orphans. When Lawrence painted the Migration, he painted what he heard from other families arriving in New York.
"Even in the catalog raisonné, they only speak in very general terms about his family life and... he never really talked about it in detail," Thomas explained. "If that’s the way the show [and MoMA's catalogue] came together, that’s probably because that’s the way Jacob told it. He didn’t tell the story [that he painted] about his family, he told it through the eyes of the people he saw coming and the stories those people told him when they got there, to New York."
This and this seem to be the most detailed biographies online that include Lawrence's parents. According to those, his mother, Rosa Lee, was a domestic worker from Virginia (whose in-home domestic work when she went north to New York accounted partly for why Jacob and his siblings had to go into foster care), and Jacob, his father, was a railroad cook from South Carolina who became a coal miner in the North.
It doesn't look like there's much more known about Jacob Lawrence's parents than that.
Wilkerson's own book, which contains so many of the stories of the men and women who moved northward—stories (both "heartbreaking" and "heartmaking"—may actually be the closest thing to what she wants to read about Lawrence's parents.
Thomas describes reading The Warmth of Other Suns herself. Thomas's parents came north from Florida and Louisiana. When the museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, Thomas's mother's hometown, gave Thomas an exhibition in 2007, Thomas—who grew up in Seattle—had a funny time returning to her parents' far-but-close homeland. The B&B proprietors asked her why she wasn't coming down to breakfast in the mornings.
“She’s worried that I was perhaps upstairs scared as I was the only Black person who had ever stayed in her B&B. I imagined they thought I was nervous about all white people are downstairs,” Thomas remembered, laughing. "I said, 'I'm used to white people, I'm not used to these [Southern] people'! People kept saying to me, 'You're the first black person who ever stayed at this bed and breakfast. You’re the first black person who ever ate in this or that place.'"
Thomas thinks often about her own parents' journeys.
"Just the trip—it was not how far it was, it was how emotionally far it was," Thomas said. "It was crazy, it was just crazy. So for me to read Isabel Wilkerson, and then having seen everything Jacob and Gwen told me, it made the whole story complete. For a lot of black people, when they see that and they read Isabel Wilkerson, it all comes together. How could the museum tell that story? What prepares MoMA to tell a story like that? They’re no more prepared to tell a story like that than my neighborhood cat, they just aren’t prepared. Who could tell that story?"
I told Thomas that maybe she could. Maybe, she said.
Until then, very little seems to have been documented about the migrants who birthed the man who birthed the greatest monument to the greatest domestic American migration in art history.