Jacob Lawrence Went Beyond the Constraints of a Segregated Art World
Leftists have a fraught relationship with the American Revolution. Today, it is mostly a site of vacuous patriotism, its themes appropriated by the Tea Party and recently echoed in the rhetoric of the Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol chanting “1776.”
Since the first stirrings of conflict between Britain and the colonists, American radicals have pointed out the hypocrisy of the revolutionary elite who demanded equality for themselves while holding people in bondage. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Jacob Lawrence, the celebrated painter of the black working class, took up this history in a thirty-painting series entitled Struggle: From the History of the American People.
Born in Atlantic City and raised in Harlem, Lawrence got his start as a Workers Progress Administration–sponsored artist during the New Deal. A creator of intimately scaled history paintings during a period when monumentality and abstraction was dominant in art, his best known work, the sixty-panel Migration Series, addresses the mass movement of African Americans from the rural south into northern cities and the resulting social, cultural, and economic changes to black life.
Elsewhere, Lawrence’s paintings represent histories of black liberation, chronicling the lives of revolutionaries including Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown in a dynamic, cubism-inflected style. His political commitments, which earned him a spot on an FBI watch list in 1953, are manifest in his bold and straightforward depictions of segregation, police brutality, poverty, and violent evictions in his Harlem community.
Created between 1954 and 1956, Struggle is among Lawrence’s least-known works. Last year, twenty-six of its thirty panels (four are unlocated and possibly lost) were reunited and exhibited for the first time since 1958. Executed in vivid egg tempera, they explore the early history of the United States, from the American Revolution through the end of the War of 1812.
As the struggle for equal rights accelerated in the South, Lawrence, whose work was more typically inspired by personal experience and family history — his own parents were among the thousands who traveled north seeking employment during the Great Migration — turned his attention to the first few decades of the nation.
An Integrated History
What possibilities did Lawrence see in this history? He began work on the series in 1954, the same year the United States Supreme Court ruled to desegregate American schools in Brown v. Board of Education, precipitating a violent backlash in southern states. In this context, what is striking about Lawrence’s paintings is that they offer an integrated vision of revolutionary struggle.
An early image in the series centers Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of African and Native descent who is thought to have been the first colonial to die in the revolution. As the wounded Attucks crumples to the ground, clutching his chest, his co-conspirators react in anger and horror.
Another painting represents a violent battle between red-coated Hessians and the Continental Army. Amid a frenzied snarl of angled limbs and interlocking bayonets, a mounted white officer and black soldier suffer the same fate, both reeling backward from bloody head wounds.
In this painting and throughout the series, Lawrence makes a point of centering black people in his scenes of early American history. Today, such images might suggest a Hamilton-style recasting of history — a hollow multiculturalism in the service of a hollow patriotism, sounding alarm bells for those of us rightly skeptical of neoliberalism’s cooptation of the aesthetics of diversity. Lawrence’s concern, however, was with historical fidelity, which he deployed as a corrective to segregated mainstream history.
Lawrence prepared to paint Struggle by consulting sources at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His question, as he posed it in a later interview, was “how…and to what degree the Negro had participated in American history.” His research turned up not only information on identifiable figures like Attucks, but on the nine thousand persons of African descent who served in the colonial army, some of whom enlisted as free men, and others of whom were promised freedom for their military service.
Perhaps inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois, whom he cites admiringly in the same interview, Lawrence drew from alternative sources to craft a revisionist history of the nation’s formation. Much as Du Bois does in Black Reconstruction’s account of the Civil War’s “general strike,” in which enslaved men and women depleted the economic power of the Confederacy and secured a Union victory by emancipating themselves from plantation labor, Lawrence restores agency to black people and highlights their largely unrecognized contributions to the revolutionary cause.
The persistent framing of African-American history as lying outside of United States history did and still casts black people as “exceptions,” exempt from historic promises of liberty and equality. By desegregating the mainstream American narrative of the period, Lawrence repudiated both radical and reactionary separatist efforts to divorce black Americans from the nation’s past and difference them in its present.
Struggle‘s omissions are as revealing as its inclusions. Unlike mainstream accounts of the American Revolution, which present the war and its outcome as largely the result of the goings and doings of wealthy white gentlemen in tri-corner hats, the founding fathers are almost entirely absent from Lawrence’s series.
Even if the exact date doesn’t ring a bell, the events of December 27, 1776 have been seared into the American unconscious thanks in large part to Emanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Against a dramatic sunrise sky, Leutze’s Washington, flanked by a billowing flag, assumes an epic posture, gazing steadfastly forward with one foot on the prow of the boat.
In contrast, Lawrence gives us huddled forms in blood-spattered boats, whose hunched postures resemble the cold and choppy waves through which they struggle to row.
In Struggle, as the series’ title suggests, the work of revolution and nation-building is undertaken by anonymous figures participating in a collective project. While some framings characterize the American Revolution as a fight between British and colonial elites vying for economic power, Lawrence emphasizes the role of the workingmen, tenant farmers, and salaried laborers who attended radical meetings, formed militias, and enlisted to fight for national self-determination, political democracy, an end to privileges of rank, and material improvements to their lives, like land reform.
Instead of handing the credit to the founding fathers, Lawrence, like socialist revolutionaries from Eugene Debs to Lenin, claimed America, and the principles of democracy and freedom, as the product of collective struggle.
Although Lawrence portrays the contribution of black people to the American side of the conflict, his series makes no reference to the 20,000 black men who fought for the British, many of whom were also fugitive slaves promised freedom by the crown. By keeping the focus on American history, Lawrence avoids asking whether the cause for which black soldiers were prepared to fight and die was freedom from British tyranny or from slavery.
Elsewhere in the series, however, Lawrence brings these tensions to the fore. By creating an assemblage of paintings representing figures from different social groups, economic classes, and racial backgrounds, he asks viewers to grapple with the contradictions that shaped the early history of the United States, among them the irreconcilable oppositions between liberty and (human) property, and between American independence and Native sovereignty.
Lawrence juxtaposes the indigenous fight against colonial encroachment with American protests against British imperialism. In his depiction of the Boston Tea Party, Lawrence chooses to emphasize a lesser-known detail about the event: that the protesters were dressed as Indians.
By representing the colonists in face paint and feathers, he places this scene in dialogue with a later painting representing the Battle of Tippecanoe, where similarly-dressed members of the Native confederation led by Shawnee chief Tecumseh fight with American soldiers in a bid of resistance against westward expansion. By counterposing these competing and incompatible claims to sovereignty, Lawrence highlights the hypocrisy of the colonial demand for self-determination.
Most of Struggle‘s paintings are titled with excerpts from primary sources, including letters, popular songs, and military reports. By quoting from these documents, Lawrence gives voice to the contradictions that define this period. It is certainly no accident that the very first painting in the series takes its title from Patrick Henry’s 1775 address to the Second Virginia Convention: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”
Lawrence literalizes this rhetorical complaint of enslavement in his portrayals of actual antislavery struggles. One of the series’ most harrowing images depicts such an uprising.
Dark brown bodies, shackled but nude, meet the clothed forms of lighter-colored figures at the painting’s vertical axis in a spasm of violence. This unidentified revolt, which stands in for thousands of forgotten bids for freedom, should be seen as just as critical to the formation of the United States as the crossing of the Delaware, or the Constitutional Convention.
Lawrence returns to this theme later in the series in a painting in which four men, two black and two white, are shown locked in violent combat. Deep gouges, which Lawrence created by scraping away at the paint with a sharp tool, mar the back of one of the black men — maybe wounds inflicted during this fight or older remnants of the lash. This painting follows immediately after one entitled “Peace,” referring to the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the War of 1812 — a reminder while an international war had ended, an internal fight for freedom continued.
Lawrence’s title for this painting seems almost a response to Patrick Henry’s earlier incitement of revolution. Taken from a letter written in 1810 by Captain James, an enslaved man who was planning a revolt, it reads, “for freedom we want and will have, for we have served this cruel land long enuff.”
By placing the fight for black liberation in dialogue with the themes of the American Revolution, Lawrence asserts the significance of the struggle against monarchic colonial rule and for liberty and equality while still demanding an answer to the question, as Frederick Douglass posed it, “What, to the slave, is the fourth of July?” His intervention represents black history not as a particularist “special interest,” but as an integral component of an ongoing democratic endeavor.
Beyond the American Revolution
Lawrence originally envisioned Struggle as a larger project. A grant application, which was on view alongside the series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, outlines his plan to represent much more of America’s history, beginning with the founding of the Chesapeake Bay colonies and continuing through the end of World War I. The litany of events he saw as critical to this narrative makes it clear that for Lawrence, American history was not a triumphalist tale of victory, but an ongoing struggle to make the nation live up to its purported values.
We can only imagine how he would have, as he proposed, represented the experience of indentured servants, the growth of the plantation economy, settler-colonialism in the American West, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the meat-packing plants of Chicago and the steel mills of Pittsburgh, and the fight to establish labor unions.
As a single episode in this litany of events, Lawrence’s American Revolution recalls Marxist analysis. The conflict was an unfinished attempt at revolution, betrayed by elite efforts to limit popular democracy and protect chattel slavery, which nevertheless represented a significant step toward freedom.
Although Lawrence was one of the most successful black artists of his day, he couldn’t secure funding to complete the series as he intended. Nor was he able to publish Struggle, as he had hoped, or to find a single buyer for the complete set of paintings. Despite his wish to keep the series united, his paintings were dispersed, and some were lost.
Why this lack of interest? Were funders, gallerists, and art collectors skeptical of Lawrence’s integrated narrative of revolution and nation-building? Were they uncomfortable with his exploration of the contradictions inherent in the American endeavor? Or was American history perhaps considered an inappropriate subject for a black artist?
Lawrence, like many of his peers, expressed frustration with the art world’s tacit insistence that black artists focus exclusively on “black” themes, a ghettoization that limited opportunities and resulted in the de facto segregation of museum and gallery exhibitions. In addressing national and universal concerns, Lawrence ventured beyond the narrow set of topics — Harlem neighborhoods, jazz clubs, cotton plantations — which had become synonymous with blackness in mid-century American culture. By doing so, he opened up new territory in American history and staked a claim for himself and for black Americans.
Struggle: From the History of the American People will be on view at the Seattle Art Museum from March 5 through May 23 and at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. from June 26 to September 1, 2021. The series was previously on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Birmingham Museum of Art.
The complete series can also be seen online here.
[Rachel Himes is a member of NYC-DSA and an incoming PhD student in the department of art history at Columbia.]
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