Jacob Lawrence’s great lost Struggle series is finally reunited and exhibited—and it couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.
A decade after his great, 60-painting Migration series of 1940, the African American painter Jacob Lawrence set himself another, equally ambitious task. Instead of portraying the present—the Migration series had depicted the exodus of black Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North during the Depression—the new series would deal with history. And unlike most of Lawrence’s work to date, it would take for its theme not just the black experience but the American experience as a whole, the fight for freedom and dignity that began with the assertion of independence from Britain—and that, as Lawrence was painfully aware, had borne far more fruit for whites than for blacks.
The Migration Series had made Lawrence, just 23 at the time, a star, the first black artist to have a solo show at a mainstream New York gallery. Soon, though, he had to put his career aside to serve in World War II, in a Coast Guard crew that happened to be one of the first integrated units in the U.S. military. After the war, Lawrence suffered from depression, and in 1949 he checked himself into Hillside Hospital in Queens, N.Y., where he spent 11 months undergoing therapy and recovering. Shortly after leaving the hospital, Lawrence conceived the idea for his new series. Its title would be Struggle: From the History of the American People.
It was not until the spring of 1954 that Lawrence began work on the paintings, giving himself a deadline of two years to finish. The research that went into the project was prodigious. Working mainly in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library on West 135th Street (now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), Lawrence amassed a huge collection of notes, news clippings, image references, and quotations from historical figures and documents. The latter became key to the project, because Lawrence titled (or captioned) each panel by matching it with a quotation of some kind. The logic behind this was that instead of assuming an omniscient third-person narrative voice, the series would let the participants in history speak for themselves, in a diversity of voices.
By John Dorfman