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

By Farah Jasmine Griffin | Go to book overview

1 "Boll Weevil in the Cotton / Devil in the White Man": Reasons for Leaving the South

The lynched body is missing from panel 15 (Figure 1.1) in Jacob Lawrence's The Migration of the Negro Series. The caption beneath it reads: "Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this." The painting is chilling yet simple; there are no complex figures. The most striking object, the hanging body, is striking by its absence. However, all the organic forms of the painting are linked to a lynching.

The small 12″ × 1″ tempera on masonite is divided by a diagonal into two large horizontal planes. Light dominates the top of the painting; the bottom is dark brown. The harsh brown of the branch and the noose interrupt the otherwise peaceful pastel plane. The noose falls in a perpendicular from the branch, echoing in shape and line the vertical figure at bottom left. Both the noose and the branch from which it hangs are brown, like the earth and the figure who occupies it. The round and twisted noose mirrors the hunched human figure at the bottom.

A black-skinned, bent body--unseen, unnamed, anonymous--is connected to the noose through its circular shape and color. The figure's blood-red clothing stand out because red is the only primary color of the painting. Like the rock on which it sits, the figure is round. The landscape is cold, bleak; there is no sun. We do not know if it is dawn or dusk. The immediate horror is gone, but an aura of mourning and sadness remain.

This depiction of a lynching is unique among other Lawrence works with the same subject matter: In other paintings and drawings, Lawrence focuses on the hanging bodies. In his John Brown series, the lynched body dominates. Lawrence's New ReSYSTEM drawings portray heads of lynched men that have become the branches of the trees. Yet in this painting he chooses to rid the scene of the body, of the evidence. It is as though the landscape and the mourning figure embody the horror of lynching. In this sense it is not the horror of one single individual, but the horror, the shame, and the burden of the land. The viewer is

-13-

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