Jacob Lawrence in corner of studio at 306 West 141st Street, Harlem, 1930s. (Photo courtesy of James L. Allen, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Harmon Foundation Collection. Photograph reproduced in Patricia Hills, Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, University of California Press)
Jacob Lawrence was a good friend, and I learned so much from him personally about art and art collecting. I had the great pleasure and honor to host him and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence (also an artist) in a conversation, along with Paul Theroux, in the Portland Arts & Lectures 1993-1994 series, and always found him to be as vivid a conversationalist as he was a painter.
I’ve written only one article on Lawrence, “New Negroes, Migration, and Cultural Exchange,” in Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series (Washington, D.C.: Rappahannock/Phillips, 1993), but he looms large in my imagination, and also in my understanding of black life in the middle of the century.
Here you had a man who was deeply involved in the fervently artistic and aestheticizing Harlem Renaissance, but who was also clear-eyed about the conditions that most black people lived under in the twentieth century.
His paintings are breathtakingly beautiful, but they do not romanticize the difficult experience of migration. If labor in the South was backbreaking, migration presented its own array of difficulties. His work, beautiful as it is, shows us that life was hard for most of our forebears — maybe even those in Harlem in the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance.
I’m pleased to host the exhibition of Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Ouverture series at the [W.E.B. Du Bois] Institute. For one thing, there is the personal connection that I feel with him, having had the good fortune to know him during his lifetime. For another, these paintings, which celebrate a hero and a heroic moment in black history, are quite different from what most people know of Lawrence (from “The Cosby Show,” if from no other source!).
But like Pat Hills, the terrific curator of the exhibition, says, this series shares in common with his other work the sense of struggle, that life is hard, and that nothing comes easy — certainly not independence.
The Jacob Lawrence exhibition also shines a light on our remarkable space at the Du Bois Institute. The Rudenstine Gallery is the only gallery at Harvard dedicated exclusively to African and African American art. (It is one of only two spaces in the Boston area, in fact, to do so. )
So it is our hope that Lawrence will draw more people to the Rudenstine Gallery at the Du Bois Institute, and also to understand the importance of studying and exhibiting African and African American art. Lawrence would have supported this mission wholeheartedly.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.