Migration stories

While Communities Count presents a lot of data about disparities, we often miss opportunities to look at the historical and cultural underpinnings of those disparities. Fortunately, exhibitions at three Seattle museums create artistic contexts within which we can explore – without charts and numbers – how we got to where we are. Understanding our history may help us make informed decisions about the future.

What is it like to leave home, family, friends – everything you’ve ever known – and start over in a new place? And what if the people in that new place don’t really welcome you? These questions come to mind as people around the globe are searching for places to start over – places where they will feel safe and secure, and perhaps build a better future for themselves and their children. The questions also resonate with the history of our country. Through April 23rd, a Seattle Art Museum (SAM) exhibit, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, offers an opportunity for us to learn about that history by chronicling, through pictures and words, the 20th century relocation of millions of African Americans from the American South to industrial cities in the North.

The Migration Series, Panel 18: The migration gained in momentum., 1940–41, Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917–2000, casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in., Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy, The Museum of Modern Art, © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Lawrence told his story in 60 bold images – painted on hardboard panels in 1940 and 1941 – each with a brief, eloquent caption. For example,
• Panel 3: “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.”
• Panel 49: “They found discrimination in the North. It was a different kind.”
• Panel 58: “In the North the African American had more educational opportunities.”

To complement the exhibit, the museum lined up more than 20 special programs and community events. Two distinguished guests, who spoke at full-house performances, deepened the context for understanding this massive migration:
• Pulitzer-Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson discussed her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a 15-year project for which she interviewed 1,200 people.
• United States Representative John Lewis shared personal stories about nonviolent activism during the Civil Rights era. He was accompanied by writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, who collaborated with him on the graphic novel trilogy, MARCH, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

In their lives and work, Lawrence, Wilkerson, and Lewis have reached new audiences with well-documented but untold stories that hadn’t made it into the textbooks. Explaining his motivation for a 31-painting series about Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, Lawrence said in a 1968 oral history, “We hear about Molly Pitcher. We hear about Betsy Ross…. [but] the Negro woman has never been included in American history.” Thanks in part to Lawrence, some of the gaps have been filled. But we’re still catching up. From the Seattle Art Museum, “To this day we have barely understood the full impact of this movement that was driven not by one single leader, but by six million Americans seeking political asylum in their own country. This migration reshaped culture and politics, North and South, and set in motion the current racial challenges and disparities we now face as a country.”

What about our region?

During SAM’s Migration Series exhibit, exhibitions at two other Seattle museums offer local perspectives on themes of migration and displacement:
• At the Northwest African American Museum, An Elegant Utility (through May 28th) features photographs, household belongings, and other artifacts of artist Inye Wokoma’s family to explore the broader story of African-Americans in Seattle.
• In Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner (through Feb 11th, 2018), the Wing-Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience brings together poems by Lawrence Matsuda and artwork by Roger Shimomura to recognize the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII, and to relate this to current events.

Upcoming events at Seattle Art Museum (all free and open to the public) include:
• Thu Apr 6, 6:30–7 pm, Migration Stories: community members share personal stories of migration, immigration, place, and home.
• Thu Apr 6, 6:30-8:30 pm, The Migration Series: free drop-in art-making session led by artist Eve Sanford.
• Wed Apr 12, 7-9 pm, Complex Exchange (Part 2 of 2) 7–9 pm, Seattle Art Museum and Northwest African American Museum’s recurring series Complex Exchange pairs Seattle community members from a variety of disciplines in conversations to tackle themes inspired by an exhibition. The April 12 event will focus on Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series.

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