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

Letters for Freedom

no 5_struggle series

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 5: We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!– Petition of Many Slaves, 1773, 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 12 x 16 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Welcome, February; welcome, Black History Month! Alongside The Civil Rights Movement icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, I would like to honor a black artist who was a powerful voice for the African-American community, Jacob Lawrence. Currently on display in the museum is Lawrence’s Struggle series, a collection of panels narrating important and tumultuous scenes from American history. Though each panel is moving in its own way, my favorite from the series is number 5 (1955), captioned, “We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! –Petition of many slaves, 1773.”

The way Lawrence was able to evoke such pain and heartache in this painting is astonishing. Noting the protruding ribs, tired eyes, and massive shackles of the slaves in the work, I feel as though the detail in the panel is what truly makes the narrative. The gold-colored mountain or wall in the center could be representative of the impenetrable American government that refused to listen to the slaves’ petitions for a better, free life. I am simply intrigued at how Lawrence composed this panel in a way that emphasizes hardship, but still an unwavering courage to continue fighting.

After a bit of research, I discovered this caption was a quote in a letter written from a slave named Felix Holbrook to the provincial legislature of Massachusetts. Felix was a neutralist during the Revolutionary War, meaning he did not support the Patriots or Loyalists, but he was an advocate for black liberty. He wrote the letter on behalf of his fellow slaves with the intention of finally gaining freedom. The letter was actually one of four in a series of petitions (1773-77) from a group of slaves in the Boston province.

The artist was able to flawlessly capture the fed-up, but forever brave sentiment of Felix’s letter into this beautiful panel. For this great contribution to art history, Jacob Lawrence, I thank you.

Aysia Woods, Marketing Intern

Staff Show 2014: Nancy Libson

In this series, we profile participants in the 2014 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show.

Nancy Lisbon, Untitled #7, 2014, photograph

Nancy Libson, Untitled #7, 2014, photograph

What do you do at The Phillips Collection?  Are there any unique/interesting parts about your job that most people might not know about?

I’m a Gallery Educator. I really enjoy learning about the artists in the permanent collection and special exhibitions, preparing, and then leading tours. I find this process such a great and fun way to learn. I also love talking about art and hearing what visitors have to say on the tours. The art inspires me. I feel very connected to the work as I walk around the galleries and I often get ideas for photo projects and teaching projects (I teach art and photography as well outside of the Phillips).

Who is/are your favorite artist/artists in the collection?

I don’t really have one favorite artist… I have many.  I have learned a lot from Jacob Lawrence and his Migration Series since his work relates to what I do as a photographer. My work is mostly documentary and still photography, and often an artist can teach me a lot by really getting to know their work. I have come to know the Migration Series quite well and feel a connection to Jacob Lawrence’s journey on many levels!

What would you like people to know about your artwork on view in the Staff Show (or your work in general)?

I love to photograph people and places. This photo is a part of a series.

Where else have you exhibited your work?

My photography has been exhibited nationally, internationally and in private collections, including The Library of Congress. I’ve had solo exhibits at the Harvard University Fogg Art Museum and Arlington Arts Center and group exhibits at The Embassy of Japan and Galerie Benezet in Avignon, France. I’ve worked as a freelance photographer for the National Geographic Traveler and a variety of non-profit agencies.

The 2014 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show will be on view December 16, 2014 through January 19, 2015. The show features artwork from Phillips Collection staff.