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Exploring America’s Great Migration at MoMA

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It's one of the most significant (and, to my mind, one of the most interesting) stories in American history, the epic tale of the "Great Migration" of American blacks, as six million descendants of slaves fled the Jim Crow south to the cities of the north and west between the First World War and 1970, and forever changed pretty much everything about the nation, economically, culturally, politically, sociologically. There's so much to this vast demographic shift, the implications so deep and lasting, that it's impossible to fully capture in a single art exhibition, or book, but two recent endeavors–one an exhibition at MoMA, the other a Pulitzer Prize-winning book–do an excellent job of bringing the story to life. 

jacob lawrence great migration moma panels

Jacob Lawrence at MoMA

At the Museum of Modern Art, from now through September 7, you can see all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence's extraordinary Migration Series, brought together and on display for the first time in more than two decades. Created in 1941 when Lawrence was just 23 years old, these small-scale paintings with accompanying captions touch upon every aspect of the journey, from the reasons for leaving the south (and the fear that accompanied the departure, due to the often violent resistance from local whites who didn't want to allow "their" people, usually sharecroppers, to go), to the trip itself, to the challenges, opportunities, and homesickness that became a part of life in their new home. Lawrence's renderings manage to be both personal and universal, are consistently provocative and engaging, and walking through the exhibition is like reading an extraordinary picture book. There are a number of cultural artifacts from other black artists of the era on display as well, from drawings and books to videos of seminal performances, such as Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit. It's a thoughtful, tightly focused, terrific show.

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Further Reading

If and when you want to dig deeper and learn more about the migration, turn to one of my favorite non-fiction books of the past decade, Isabel Wilkerson's remarkable The Warmth of Other Suns. First published in 2010, this massive history is gripping and brilliant in many ways (the reporting is phenomenal, the result of literally thousands of interviews), but it's Wilkerson's narrative device of closely following three individuals that provides the sense of intimacy such a grand topic requires. You meet Ida Mae Gladney, who with her husband fled a miserable Mississippi life as sharecroppers in 1937 for Milwaukee, then Chicago. There's George Starling, who snuck out of Central Florida amid threats of lynching in 1945 and made a life for himself as railroad porter based in Harlem. And there's Dr. Robert Foster, who drove out of Louisiana to Los Angeles, where he became rich and "famous" (he was Ray Charles's doctor, and the subject of one of the man's hit songs) but in his heart could never escape the humiliation of Jim Crow. If you enjoy a big, smart, unforgettable read, this is your book.

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