Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 2

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week. Read the introductory post here.

Struggle_Panel 2

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 2: Massacre in Boston, 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On March 5, 1770, an argument broke out between a colonist and two British guards outside of the Custom House in Boston. It escalated to a riot between Bostonians and the British guards, resulting in the deaths of five colonists. This incident was almost immediately immortalized in Paul Revere’s famous engraving The Bloody Massacre, which aimed to cement the brewing anti-British sentiment among the colonists with its inclusions of controversial and falsified details. In stark contrast to Revere’s propagandist agenda, Jacob Lawrence’s interpretation Massacre in Boston focuses on the struggles of the American colonists by portraying them rallying around their wounded compatriot. There was not a single British soldier in the painting.

Fast forward to 1955 when Lawrence worked on this panel, the year that African Americans rallied around the death of Emmett Till, a young African American boy murdered by two white men in Mississippi. The culprits were not convicted of homicide. Through the media attention the case garnered, it was transformed into the symbol of the disparities of justice and rights for African Americans. In both of these episodes in American history, the power of the people is emphasized. This aspect is conveyed in Lawrence’s work with his focus on groups of figures coming together, fighting for a common cause.

Phuong Nguyen

Deconstructing the Struggle Series

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

Install shot_Struggle

Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: Struggle…From the History of the American People. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As I reflect upon our semester, I am amazed at how Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series has opened itself to us for new discoveries about the individual works and about the series as a whole. For a time in this course, we were able to view 30 panels from The Migration Series in a space adjacent to the gallery with the 12 panels from the Struggle series. We began the semester with “mindfully” looking at works from both series. Our observations in the galleries and later examinations of surface and shape taught us a great deal about the viability and flexibility of Lawrence’s practice in tempera paint applied to sequences of same size panels over time. In the nearly 15 years separating Lawrence’s Migration epic and his American History (comprising events from the American Revolution and the Early Republic), we found an amazing continuity in his method: starting with research in the Schomburg Library, next visualization from notes and texts, pencil drawing and notation on the surface (both front and back), and lastly the patterning and improvisational layered application of pure colors. However, unlike The Migration Series, which reads like an epic poem with stanzas and refrains, the Struggle series visualizes the incidents of history by way of individual filmic splices. We feel the quickened pace of being in the moment and psychological intensity in the acute angles of Lawrence’s shapes and in his flashing contrasts of seemingly improvised color. Lawrence’s notations—some of early titles—on the backs of the panels also offered us important clues to the identity of the historical events as well as to his thinking.

For example, on the back of the panel about Patrick Henry’s speech, Lawrence erased the word “Protest.” On the back of the panel about the Boston Tea Party, Lawrence wrote, “Masquerade.” In Lawrence’s work, when a story is being told is as important as what is being told. For him, deep context is important. So our students set about researching historical events and textual sources as well as the current events in 1954–56 when the series was being created. Among them were school integration, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the heinous murder of Emmet Till. The partial or incomplete aspect of the Phillips’s showing of the Struggle series became an opportunity for the students to posit alternate sequences and to underscore key themes such as violence vs. non-violence or the individual vs. society. When given the amazing opportunity to rearrange the Struggle series gallery, we ultimately opted for the 12 panels to be arranged chronologically in the order of historical events. In this way, the reader of the series first finds in the story of the Revolution the image of a Slave Revolt and Petition before encountering Patrick Henry’s appeal for liberty or death which invokes a slave petition. In each of the following parts of this blog series, students respond to different panels and discuss their interpretations and report their research on Lawrence’s work.

Beth Turner, Former Phillips Curator

Teaching Real World History with Jacob Lawrence

Cosby Hunt, Manager of Teaching and Learning at Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington, DC, recently brought his Real World History class to the Phillips to explore Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. Here he reflects on this experience and other memories related Jacob Lawrence.

A student asks an elder about his life while looking at The Migration Series.  Photo: Andrea Kim Taylor

A student asks an elder about his life while looking at The Migration Series. Photo: Andrea Kim Taylor

I came home the summer after my first two years of teaching and cut all my hair off. It was 1995, and I had just spent the last two years getting my butt kicked as a new teacher in rural Georgia. I had told Teach for America in 1993 that I would teach “anywhere” as long as I could teach secondary social studies, and they sent me anywhere: Sparta, Georgia. I wouldn’t trade those two years for the world; that time was the beginning of my career as an educator.

My mother took a photo of my hair just before the haircut: close on the side and dreadlocks on top lying back—probably having been just released from whatever bandanna was holding them in place. Later that day I came home from the barber with a closely shaved head, the locks I’d spent three years cultivating swept off the floor of the barber shop by the time I put my key in the ignition to return home. A week or so later my mother took me and my newly shaved head to see the artist Jacob Lawrence speak at the University of Akron. That was the last substantial thing I remember doing with her; she died soon thereafter in August 1995.

Students and elders discuss Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. Photo: Andrea Kim Taylor

Students and elders discuss Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. Photo: Andrea Kim Taylor

I have been teaching students and teachers in Washington, DC, the town where my mother and father raised me, since 1997. Recently I was able to reconvene with Mr. Lawrence—at least in spirit—when I took a group of high school students to The Phillips Collection to view his epic Migration Series. My students were working on oral history projects as part of our Real World History Class—an after school honors elective class in which 20 students from ten different high schools across the city are enrolled. We spent the fall reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. In keeping with the ideals of the class and Center for Inspired Teaching, it was time to shift from (just) studying history to actually doing it. I paired the students with black Washingtonians who moved here from the South before 1970 and arranged for these older adults to meet us at the Phillips so that they and the students could view the series together. After students viewed the series with their interviewees, all of them sat together, discussed, and recorded what they had seen in the gallery.

It was a delight seeing the teenagers switch into respect-for-their-elders mode; watching young and old discuss artwork and history together was a treat. I’m certain that Lawrence’s work sparked some questions from the students that they wouldn’t have otherwise asked. For example, Panel no. 53 in the series features long-time African-American residents of northern cities who met the migrants with “aloofness and disdain,” which prompted one student to ask her interviewee if she had encountered similar disdain. Another student made connections between some of the brutality shown in the Lawrence’s work with the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York.

I can’t wait to read the oral history projects the students have just submitted, and I’m already looking forward to the time I’ll spend with Lawrence’s The Migration Series and next year’s Real World History students.

Cosby Hunt, Manager of Teaching and Learning at Center for Inspired Teaching