Some may call his work revolutionary, but according to artist Jacob Lawrence his art simply reflects the culture he knew and the stories he was told growing up. Born in New Jersey, Lawrence grew up in the 1920s, a period when artistic expression was booming amongst African Americans. After moving to Harlem, he was introduced to mentors such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage who molded him into the dynamic artist that visually portrayed the construction of blackness.
Portrait of Jacob Lawrence, 1941
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress
During the age of “The New Negro,” a term coined by Alain Locke, Lawrence along with Langston Hughes and Claude McKay was able to expand his talents thanks to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. In Lawrence’s case, the fund enabled him to rent a studio, which led to the further development of his series of paintings entitled The Great Migration, which depicted the journey, struggle, and triumphs of blacks from the South to the North after the Civil War. His depiction of that cultural movement provided a different perspective of a commonly told story capturing moments that people could relate to and understand.
Lawrence was able to complete the series remarkably quickly (all 60 panels were finished in 6 to 8 months of 1941) thanks to the first two of his three consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. The Migration Series was recognized fairly quickly as an important work and in December of 1941, it was shown in Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City as part of a pioneering exhibition of “American Negro Art,” possibly the first time a black artist’s work had been displayed in a major New York gallery.
Curators of two modern art museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., immediately expressed interest in purchasing the series. It was decided that the collection would be split in half, each museum taking 30 paintings, for a total purchase price of $2,000. MoMA took the even numbered panels based on the input of one of its trustees, Adele Rosenwald Levy. Levy, the daughter of Julius Rosenwald, had fallen in love with panel #46, an image of a staircase, and it was agreed that the paintings be divided so that MoMA would receive that one. The Migration Series remains a prominent feature of both museums’ permanent collection and over the years has been reunited for exhibitions around the country.
Years after his death, Lawrence still provides a platform for untold stories through art. Jacob and his late wife Gwen developed a fellowship at the Seattle Art Museum that funds artistic work from people of color that reflects Lawrence’s ideologies. The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation houses all of his series including Toussaint L’Ouverture – one of his most notable works. For more information on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, visit jacobandgwenlawrence.org.
By Ariel Edem and Michael Rose
HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, is a period piece rich with historical detail. The show often references contemporary cultural touchstones as a way to develop its characters. The reference in last night’s episode to Harlem Renaissance poet, writer and Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay is a good example.
The second episode in the new season features a brief conversation between the bright and relatively well-off daughter and son of Chalky White, an African American gangster and bootlegger. Lester White (Chalky’s son) is presumably back from his first semester at Atlanta’s historic Morehouse College and he tells his sister about playing jazz piano in a roadhouse near campus. Before he departs, the two share a laugh over jazz being the “devil’s music” (it’s certainly a far cry from “Clair de lune,” which Lester performed for his father in an earlier episode) and Lester hands Maybelle (Chalky’s daughter) a book of McKay’s poems, telling her “They’re worth a look.”
One of the episode’s general themes is parenting and, specifically, the plot line with Chalky White and his children is about the disconnect between generations. Although Chalky pushes his children to attend college, he’s clashed in previous episodes with them over his illiteracy and his allegiance to Southern traditions. Chalky pays for his children’s education (primarily through illegal means) but he’s cut off from their academic and emotional growth.
McKay’s poems, like “The Lynching” and “If We Must Die,” were formative for young readers in the early 1920s, but they remained inaccessible to many from the previous generation, like Chalky White. McKay and other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance pointed the way to a new future with their artistic expressions, but “Boardwalk Empire” does a good job displaying the conflict of this vision with the pre-Civil Rights hopelessness of bitter racial division and violence. The scene also concisely shows how the cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance made their way around the country through word of mouth.
By Michael Rose
Last week, in the New York Times, Felicia R. Lee reported about a Columbia doctoral student’s discovery of a heretofore unpublished and basically unknown manuscript by the great Harlem Renaissance writer, intellectual and Rosenwald fellow, Claude McKay. Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep was found in a personal collection of rare books and papers left by deceased publisher Samuel Roth. The novel has been authenticated by several scholars and McKay’s estate gave its permission for it to be published.
McKay received his first Rosenwald grant at a turning point in his career. In 1935, he had already published his famous novel, Home to Harlem, and two others, and after this time he focused on autobiography and poetry. The discovery of this new manuscript changes that picture, however. 1933’s Banana Bottom was thought to be McKay’s final novel, but now it appears this 1941 book is his last work of fiction. Two years after completing Amiable With Big Teeth, McKay received another grant from the Rosenwald Fund in 1943 (again for creative writing).
Quoted in the Times, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is enthusiastic about the discovery of the novel for its contemporary depiction of attitudes in black cultural life and for the light it sheds on the later, less well documented, period of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel’s satire of communists illuminates McKay’s personal politics and also provides a look into a different facet of his artistic practice.
Earlier this year, another unknown novel by a Rosenwald fellow was discovered: Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth.
By Michael Rose
Elizabeth Catlett, painter, sculptor and former Rosenwald fellow, passed away Monday in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915 but moved around a lot as a student and artist, spending time at black universities such as Howard, Hampton and Dillard and also studying at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Catlett’s large body of work cements her status as one of the great African American artists of the 20th century, and her obituaries note that she was one of the last remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. Catlett was also married to another Rosenwald fellow, artist Charles White.
One of Catlett’s best-known works, a series of linoleum-block prints called The Negro Woman, was created with the help of consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1946 and 1947. The abstract black and white images in this series include portraits of black women doing everyday tasks, pictures of black luminaries such as Harriet Tubman and striking images of segregation and labor organization. The images are made more powerful by their bold and matter of fact titles, such as “I have always worked hard in America” and “My right is a future of equality with other Americans.” A print from this series belonging to the Whitney Museum can be viewed online here.
“Singing Head,” Elizabeth Catlett, 1980
Photo Credit: Michael Rose
Property of Smithsonian American Art Museum
It was the Rosenwald fellowship that initially brought Catlett to Mexico, where she spent the latter half of her life. According to Daniel Schulman’s essay in A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Catlett spent the first year of her fellowship thinking creatively about how to make a sophisticated artwork that would still communicate to a mass audience. At the same time, Catlett was honing her printmaking craft (which she first studied at Howard) at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a political printmaking collective in Mexico. The Rosenwald grant allowed Catlett the freedom to gradually develop The Negro Woman, which Schulman, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, called “[maybe] the most successfully realized and powerful project to have emerged from a Rosenwald Fellowship.”
Author and University of Florida professor of creative writing Harry Crews, who also passed away within the last week (March 28th) spoke of a connection to Sears in his early life. Crews grew up in rural Georgia in a household that contained only two books, the Bible and the “Consumer’s Bible,” the annual Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. As a child, he would make up stories with friends while paging through the catalogue, riffing on its idealized images.
Crews recounted this method of creative storytelling for a 2003 documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (IMDb), a scene from which can be seen here. “See, when I was a boy, the Sears Roebuck catalogue […] came to everybody’s mailbox in the South,” says Crews in the documentary. “First thing that struck us was everybody in the Sears Roebuck catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any baldheads, everybody had all the fingers that was coming to ‘em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. But everybody we knew had a finger missing or one eye put out from a staple glancing off a post. In other words, everybody in our world was maimed and mutilated whereas everybody in the Sears Roebuck world was perfect. And so we just started to tell stories about the people. We’d give them names.”
The Washington Post ran detailed obituaries for both Ms. Catlett and Mr. Crews.
By Michael Rose