Picturins America
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17-A Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, no 57, 1940-1941
Elena Tsatsura




U.S. History

Great migration, Harlem Renaissance, African American Immigrants

Lesson Plan Title

Seeking a better life

Skills Covered

  • Analyzing primary source documents,
  • interpreting written information,
  • making inferences and drawing conclusions,
  • comparison/contrast, creating a project
  • critical thinking

General Goal(s)

  • Analyze the picture in English from an integrated point of view combining the imagery of the picture and the historical events connected with it
  • learn more about J. Lawrence and the story of his nation the way he saw it
  • critically analyze the information about such phenomena of American history as Great migration, Harlem Renaissance,
  • speak about the development of new modern art forms like modern paintings, jazz, African American poetry
  • realize the role of African American people in the history of the U.S.

Specific Objectives

Discuss the way African American individuals fought for their freedom and rights, the challenges they faced on the way and the courage they revealed. J. Lawrence pictures will be presented in the lesson as a part of Harlem Renaissance heritage closely tied to jazz music and new African American literature of those days.

Materials/ Visual Aids


Find the image at


1. Gaze at the picture listening to the song by Ella Fitzgerald “Summer time” along.
2.  Think about the main idea of picture and say :

  • Whose story the picture may be telling.
  • Who might be the woman in the picture? What is her job? What is her skin color?
  • How does the woman feel?
  • How does the music add to the atmosphere of the picture?

IHandy vocabulary
The words from the chart below can help you describe the atmosphere of the picture and your impressions of it.

The woman is
She is not

  tired                     strong                hardworking      worn out
exhausted           chapfallen         energetic       well-to-do
educated             poor                   enthusiastic        active


The song

  adds to the picture           resonates with            contrasts to                       
echoes in one’s heart                     provokes emotions
contradicts to                    brings light on              underlines                   





3. Read the piece of information about black female immigrants whose group image is presented in the symbolic figure of J. Lawrence’s panel.

Southern black women
In this image, Lawrence portrayed a woman engaged in her work at a commercial laundry. She is washing clothes. Rugs and blankets hang behind her. The red handle of the woman's washing stick creates the painting's focal point and divides the composition down the center.
Southern black women were excluded from virtually all areas of employment except domestic service. As domestics, they worked long hours away from home, cleaning other people’s houses, washing their clothes, and caring for their children.
For this labor they were paid the lowest of wages. One black woman recalled that her employer paid her only ten dollars a month, yet forced her to sleep in the house where she worked, and allowed her to go home only once every two weeks for an afternoon visit.

4. How do you think the story in E. Fitzgerald’s song contradicts to the story of the woman in the picture? Go to page 17 of Appendix and read the lyrics to the song if necessary.


5. Find the images of Jacob Lawrence and Ella Fitzgerald at
How are their images similar and different from that of the woman in the picture? Compare their appearance, clothes and jobs. Guess how the life stories of these two famous people can be similar to the story of a laundry worker? 

6. Read some famous facts about Jacob and Ella’s lives. Complete the comparative chart below with more details about the life of Ella, Jacob and the woman in the picture. In the spaces where the 3 circles intersect write similar facts and put differences into individual spaces.
J. Lawrence
Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey , Lawrence was thirteen when he moved with his sister and brother to New York City. His mother enrolled him in classes at an arts and crafts settlement house in Harlem, in an effort to keep him busy.
After dropping out of school at sixteen, Lawrence worked in a laundry and a printing plant. More importantly, he attended classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by the African American artist Charles Alston. Alston urged him to also attend the Harlem Community Art Center, led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage was able to secure Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and a paid position with the Works Progress Administration.
Learn more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Lawrence

E. Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, the child of a common-law marriage between William and Temperance "Tempie" Fitzgerald. The pair separated soon after her birth and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York with Tempie's boyfriend.
In her youth Fitzgerald wanted to be a dancer, although she loved listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the lead singer Connee Boswell, later saying, "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it....I tried so hard to sound just like her."

Learn more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Fitzgerald


7. Work in small groups of 3 – 4. Read a number of short stories about J. Lawrence’s Migration series. Distribute the 4 paragraphs among the members of the group. After reading his/her paragraph the members should share the information with each other to let everyone get a complete idea of the text.

  • Listen to “Basin Street Blues” by Louis Armstrong as a background music for reading and sharing.

J. Lawrence’s Migration series
Picturing narratives
In 1940-41 Lawrence created a sixty-panel narrative, The Migration of the Negro, based on the experience of his family, the recollections of people in his community, and research that he conducted in the Schomburg Collection. This powerful portrayal of migration communicates the struggle, strength, and perseverance of African Americans who, between 1900 and 1940, moved from the agricultural communities of the South to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest in search of a better life. Lawrence conveyed his message through the texts that accompanied each panel. The captions for each image combine history, sociology, and poetry in a visual narrative. The caption for the picture you saw above says: “The female worker was one of the last groups to leave the south”.
Migration series
In the first half of the series, the South is depicted as a bleak, rustic landscape where social inequities and injustice prevail–poverty, hunger, segregation, lynching, and discrimination are commonplace facts of life. Some scenes are portrayed as if seen from a moving train; the North appears only as names of train destination.
In contrast to the environment of the South, the second half of the narrative depicts the buildings, people, and industry of the urban North.
“I don't think in terms of history about that series”, says the artist. “I think in terms of contemporary life. It was such a part of me that I didn't think of something outside. It was like I was doing a portrait of something. If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers”.
Visions of Harlem
Jacob Lawrence witnessed the innovative and improvised lifestyles of the Negros in Harlem created by the convergence of the Great Migration, the Depression, the Jazz Age, and the Harlem Renaissance. Inspired by the Harlem community's interest in the stories of its heritage, Lawrence became the storyteller or visual griot of the neighborhood.
Recalling the impact of the sights and sounds of Harlem when he first arrived there in 1930, Lawrence referred to the "endlessly fascinating patterns" of "cast-iron fire escapes and their shadows created across the brick walls." He remarked on the "variegated colors and shapes of pieces of laundry on lines stretched across the back yards…the patterns of letters on the huge billboards and the electric signs."

J. Lawrence about the series
"I've always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools...I don't see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn't [paint] just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don't have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we can certainly do the same thing....I am not a politician. I'm an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about..."

8. Choose the best answer to the following questions and explain your choice (more than 1 answer is possible).
1. Why are the Migrant series called “visual narratives”?

  • All these pictures are connected by one story
  • They are based on a book
  • Each picture has a caption

2. What part of American history do they portray?

  • The story of black slavery in America
  • The migration of African Americans from the South to the North
  • The black economic slavery of the 40s

3. What was the artist’s intention of creating the series?

  • He wanted to tell the history of black people and community
  • He wanted to be remembered
  • His purpose was to tell his own life story

4. What challenges did the Negros face in the 40s?

  • They were treated as equal by the white community
  • They were discriminated
  • They faced economic slavery

5. Why did Lawrence give captions to his pictures?

  • It was hard to understand the picture without captions
  • He wanted his series to be extraordinary
  • He wanted to tell the story of his nation which wasn’t revealed in books on American history

6. How does Lawrence see the role of the Negro in American history?

  • Negro history is an essential part American history.
  • There are several extremely important events in American history that can’t be described without mentioning the Negros.
  • American history can’t be written honestly without including the Negro.

7. How does first half of the series contrast to the second one?

  • They are almost the same
  • The first half of the series depicts more social inequalities in comparison to the second where one can see improved social conditions of Negros’ life
  • The second half is more aggressive and politically oriented

Cultural note!
Perhaps you have noticed that speaking about his national identity J. Lawrence uses words “Negro” andBlack”, which was accepted as a norm in the 50s. Contemporary English tends to be more politically correct.
Politically Correct Language is a kind of lexicon and social behavior that are aimed to minimize the offence in the contexts related to race, gender, disabilities etc. If you want to be politically correct you should use non-offensive words instead of those ones that remind people of former negative attitude to some realities in the past. For example, the word “Negro” is unacceptable in modern U.S. society because it reminds people of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination of the past.
The PC term which is now used to denote Americans with African origin is African American. In 1988 Jesse Jackson encouraged people to adopt this term over the then-used “black.” As he saw it, the words acknowledged black America’s ties to Africa. “African American” is now used more by non-African American people. The term is favored by highly educated people who are not black. Whether one uses ‘black’ or ‘African American’ indicates how strong your social relations are with those communities and how tolerant you are.

9. Go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness.
1. Find PC substitutes for the following words below
2. Explain why the words in the 2nd column are politically correct in contrast to the words in the first column?

Non-PC term



African American







10. Work with a partner to do the following task.
Jacob Lawrence strongly considered that the history of the U. S. can’t be written without the Negro. Use your own background knowledge of American history and give your own reasons why the U.S. past and present can’t be written fairly without African Americans. Complete the upper sentence adding important historical facts into the columns (add more columns if necessary):


Harlem Renaissance (1917 – 1935) was an African American artistic movement that inspired Lawrence to create his artworks. But Harlem culture was “in vogue” not only for its jazz musicians and artists, but also for its brand new, outstanding literature and writers.
One of the best writers of Renaissance period was James Mercer Langston Hughes, (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967). He is known as African American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the new literary art form “jazz poetry”. In his stories Langston Hughes described the hardships and challenges that the black immigrants used to face and their enormous thirst for freedom.

11. Work in pairs. Read an abstract from Langston Hughes’s short story "Cora Unashamed" and share your emotions about Cora’s life with a partner.

"Cora Unashamed" by Langston Hughes (abstract).
Cora Jenkins was one of the least of the citizens of Melton.  She was what the people referred to when they wanted to be polite, as a Negress, and when they wanted to be rude, as a nigger – sometimes adding the word "wench" for no good reason, for Cora was usually an inoffensive soul, except that she sometimes cussed.
She had been in Melton for forty years.  Born there. Would die there probably.  She worked for the Studevants, who treated her like a dog.  She stood it.  Had to stand it; or work for poorer white folks who would treat her worse; or go jobless. Cora was like a tree – once rooted, she stood, in spite of storms and strife, wind, and rocks, in the earth.
She was the Studevants' maid of all work – washing, ironing, cooking, scrubbing, taking care of kids, nursing old folks, making fires, carrying water.

The Studevants thought they owned her, and they were perfectly right: they did.  There was something about the teeth in the trap of economic circumstance that kept her in their power practically all her life – in the Studevant kitchen, cooking; in the Studevant parlor, sweeping; in the Studevant backyard, hanging clothes.
You want to know how that could be?  How a trap could close so tightly?  Here is the outline:
Read more at http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/coratext.htm

12. Answer the following questions:

  • What kind of city was Melton?
  • How did people refer to Cora?
  • How does the author describe Cora’s character?
  • Why does he compare her to a tree?
  • What was Cora’s job?
  • What was the Studevants' family attitude to Cora?
  • What social problem does the author raise by the story?
  • Was the Studevants' attitude to Cora fair or not?
  • What is author’s own attitude to the main character?
  • How do you personally feel about Cora’s story?
  • How is the problem in the story similar to that in J. Lawrence’s picture?

13.  You have read a part of Langston Hughes’s story about Cora. It is interrupted right at the point where the author explains the reason why Cora’s life was so hard. Work in teams of 4 – 5 people and write the continuation of the story. Present it to the class and make a competition for the best story. Start it with the original sentences:  
You want to know how that could be?  How a trap could close so tightly?  Here is the outline:

14. Go to http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/coratext.htm
Read Langston Hughes’s story up to the end. Say how your story is different from that of Langston Hughes’s. Which of the stories was closest to the original?


15. Look at J. Lawrence’s picture again. You might have noticed that the artist didn’t draw the features of the woman’s face, which makes the picture impersonal and symbolic at the same time. Lawrence’s purpose was not to depict some particular, individual woman. The figure in the picture symbolizes hundreds of black women and at the same time any black woman who lived her life of hardships.
Work individually and write a composition where you will personalize the figure in J. Lawrence’s picture. Create an individual life story of the picture character basing on Langston Hughes’s story about Cora.

  • Give the woman in the picture a name
  • Think about her origin and the reason why she migrated
  • Say who this woman works for
  • Think if she has her own family
  • Tell about her difficulties and thirst for freedom

16. Go to http://www.google.ru/images
Find the images of world-famous African Americans:

  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Barack Obama
  • Beyonce and Jay-z

 What do you know about them? What role do they play in modern American society?
17. Search for more information about these people and make a 3 minute presentation about the one you especially admire. Consider:

  • Their origin and life facts
  • Climbing career ladder
  • Social position and role

18. Work individually. Write an essay based on the following topics:
1. The role of African Americans in modern U.S. history.
2. Is politically correct language important in today’s society?
3. I am proud of my national identity.


The genre of Lawrence’s paintings was defined by the critics as modern Impressionism. That is why one of the most eye striking things about J. Lawrence’s pictures is bright and vivid colors. Impressionists use colors not simply to depict the reality around them but to show their impression of the world, reveal their inner emotions. Like for any impressionist for J. Lawrence color has a symbolic value and becomes a bright artistic language in which the artist speaks to the audience.  

Color in art can be considered a special artistic technique of using pigments to reveal certain emotions of the artist, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, using particular colors an artist can influence the soul of a viewer; transmit some important messages and create a special atmosphere in the picture and around it.
19. Look at the color chart below and check the meaning of some colors in art and psychology.

Color Symbolism Chart




Excitement, energy, passion, love, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, aggression, danger, fire.


Joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, gold, philosophy, dishonesty, jealousy.


Peace, tranquility, cold, calm, stability, harmony, unity, truth, confidence, security, cleanliness, order, loyalty, sky, water, depression.


Royalty, nobility, spirituality, mystery, wisdom, enlightenment.


Energy, balance, enthusiasm, warmth, vibration, demand of attention.


Nature, environment, health, good luck, renewal, youth, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, inexperience.


Earth, stability, hearth, home, reliability, comfort, endurance, simplicity, and comfort.


Love, romance, and friendship


Security, reliability, intelligence, modesty, dignity, maturity, practicism, old age, sadness.


Purity, birth, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, innocence, youth, winter, snow, sterility.


Power, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, fear, evil, unhappiness, sadness, remorse, anger, mourning, death.












20. Look at the picture again and say what colors J. Lawrence used while drawing his female worker. Complete the table with the primary, secondary colors and the shades that you can see in the picture. Compare your results with a partner.

Primary Colors

Secondary colors

Shades of color




21. Work with a partner. Find the meaning of the picture colors in the chart and say how they help convey the basic idea of the picture. What emotions and message did Lawrence want to express with his color language? Consider the questions:

  • What might the white color of woman’s clothes symbolize?
  • What is the dominating color of the background?  
  • How do the colors around the woman help express her inner emotions and feelings?
  • What does the red color of woman’s stick symbolize?
  • Why is the lower end of the stick drowned in the yellow piece of cloth? What emotions does this red and yellow combination awake?
  • What does the posture of the woman symbolize?
  • The figure of the woman is made in primary colors – black, white and red. They are considered to be the most contrasting colors when used together. What do you think J. Lawrence wanted to express by this color contrast?

22.  Find other panels of the Migrant series at
Choose the one you personally like and describe it in your essay. Present it in class. When preparing, consider:

  • The use of color in the panel
  • The central and the background objects
  • Which part of the African American migration history it presents
  • How the panel is different from the rest of the series
  • Your own impressions of the picture


23. All symbolic colors differ from culture to culture. The interpretation of one and the same color in different ethnic groups can be extremely different and sometimes even the opposite.
Do the following quiz on color symbolism and check your knowledge of color meanings all around the world. For this make two teams and do the quiz as a two team competition. Then go to page 17 of Appendix and see the correct answers.

Color Symbolize Quiz

  • This color means celebration in China and mourning in South Africa.

Red                    Green                   Black

  • This color symbolizes courage in Japan and wedding in Egypt.

    Yellow                Crimson               Beige                  

  • In Iran this color means Heaven and immortality while in Western Europe it is associated with sadness and bad mood.

     Grey                   Brown                  Blue

  • In the West women wear this color for wedding while in the east they wear it for funerals.

     White                 Navy                       Ochre

  • This color is the national color Egypt but it is forbidden in Indonesia.

     Amber                Chocolate               Green

  • In European tradition this color symbolizes royalty, power and ambition:

    Turquoise            Khaki                     Purple 

  • In most European countries this color means love and friendship:

    Orange                Pink                       Lettuce green

24. Think about 3 main colors that are central for your culture and say what they symbolize.

25. Ask your partner what colors he or she likes and make his “Color Portrait”. Consider:

  • What colors she / he likes wearing
  • What colors he/she likes looking at
  • What colors is her / his room
  • What colors is she / he wearing today
  • What colors he/she hates


26. This time you will try to create your own visual narrative of some event and draw a series of pictures connected by one logical story. Here are some ideas for a visual narrative:

  • The story of our school class / university / college group
  • The story of my nation
  • The evolution of my folk music
  • The evolution of the planet
  • The story of J. Lawrence

You are free to come up with your own ideas for the project!  
Take a glass of water, watercolors, mat paper and brushes. Form groups of 3 – 5 people. Each group will be responsible for one panel of the whole narrative. After all the panels are done present your panel to the class according to the chronological order of the narrative. Be creative and have fun!


  • Section: “At a glance” / task 4

Summertime and the living is easy,
Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.
Oh your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking.
So hush little baby, don’t you cry.
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing.
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take the sky.
But till that morning
There’s a nothing can harm you
With daddy and mammy standing by.

    • Section “Sophisticated mind” / task 23.
    • Red, 2. Yellow, 3. Blue, 4. White, 5. Green, 6. Purple, 7. Pink