Who Set You Flowin'? The African-American Migration Narrative

By Farah Jasmine Griffin | Go to book overview

2
The South in the City: The Initial Confrontation with the Urban Landscape

In contrast to the bare, stagnant landscape of Jacob Lawrence's Southern painting, panel 1 of The Migration of the Negro (Figure 2.1) possesses vibrancy and movement. Visually, the painting differs a great deal from panel 15, discussed in Chapter 1. In fact, it seems to be the binary opposite of the lynching painting: While the lines of the Southern painting are horizontal, these are primarily vertical. In contrast to the roundness of the noose, the figure, and the stone of panel 15, here the lines form triangles and diamonds. The human figures are capped and further add to the triangular formations. 1

Unlike the Southern painting, panel 1 is crowded with black bodies. Instead of the lone anonymous figure of the lynching painting, who sits with back turned to the viewer, here the figures are standing upright and are marching. We can see their profiles. Among these figures there is diversity of age and gender. Finally, the two paintings differ in that the South is portrayed as an open landscape, while the city scene is crowded and enclosed.

This major difference between the two paintings--the open landscape of the South versus the enclosed space of the North--also suggests a commonality between the two. In both paintings, there is a sense of uncertainty and precariousness. While the vivid color and sense of movement (created by the use of vertical diagonals) in panel 1 suggest possibility and hope, there is also a sense of enclosure. The Northern figures are contained by lattice bars. Their vibrancy and movement are checked by the lattice fence, which narrows the crowd as it enters the city. These bars contain and control the flow of the migrants.

The uncertainty of this painting lies in the fact that it does not tell us what awaits the migrants on the other side. Those figures who are already beyond the walls have their backs turned to the viewer. While they press out into the different cities, with the largest number headed for Chicago, there is no sense of the impact they have on these Northern centers or of the impact of cities on them. This uncertainty is one that the migration narrative, as well as other sources documenting the black migration, seeks to clarify.

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