Jacob Lawrence's painted 'Migration' becomes a book for the ages -- 6 to 96

Books For Kids

February 04, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

In 1940, when he was 22 years old, artist Jacob Lawrence began a project that would consume him for a year. Across 60 panels, each 18-by-12 inches, he painted an epic narrative called "The Migration of the Negro."

Done in tempera paint and gesso (a mixture of chalk and glue), the paintings depict the exodus of African-Americans from the rural South to cities in the North, from 1916 to 1919.

For years, the series of numbered paintings has been split between the Museum of Modern Art in New York (even numbers) and the Phillips Collection in Washington (odd numbers). But now the museums have teamed up with HarperCollins to put them together in a stunning book, "The Great Migration: An American Story," paintings by Jacob Lawrence, with a poem in appreciation by Walter Dean Myers ($22.50, 48 pages, ages 8-12).

The age designation belongs to the publisher, for anyone from 6 to 96 will be moved by the drama of Mr. Lawrence's expressionist style and the spare text, which enhances his paintings without interrupting the rhythm of the project.

In his introduction, Mr. Lawrence tells of growing up in Harlem, hearing stories of families who had left the poverty and oppression of their lives as tenant farmers in the South -- just as his parents had. They journeyed to cities like New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, in search of factory jobs that came open when Northern workers left to fight World War I.

The migrants abandoned homes and, sometimes, families for the promise of a better life. Mr. Lawrence shows what they escaped -- a lynching rope, a cheating white landowner, the threat of being arrested on the street for no reason.

He also shows the new hardships they encountered -- crowded tenements, riots by Northern factory workers who had to compete with them for jobs, resentment from longtime African-American residents who treated migrants with disdain.

But it was a better life. With his bold, haunting palette, Mr. Lawrence captures the promise of three girls reaching to draw numbers on a blackboard at school. He paints a line of African-Americans, straight-backed in their dignity, finally being allowed to vote.

The book ends with Mr. Myers' poem, a bridge that reaches from that generation to this one. It ends:

The tickets to Chicago/Detroit/New York are heavy

As heavy as the memory of a church built

With sweat and faith and knotted pine

On the edge of the old burying ground

But there are the children, and there is the hope

Of a people with yet one more river to cross Zih,0 * Oral history has become one of the greatest casualties of our youth-driven, TV-obsessed culture. No one listens to great-grandparents, who could tell their own stories of the great migration. No one listens to grandparents, who could tell of Jim Crow laws and humiliating whites-only signs in downtown Baltimore.

Maybe "From Miss Ida's Porch" by Sandra Belton, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Four Winds, $14.95, 40 pages, ages 7-10) will inspire children to listen -- before it's lost.

The narrator is a girl of about 9. She and her friend, Freda, are old enough to stay up through what she calls the "very best time," those summer twilight hours when grown-ups gather to tell stories on Miss Ida's porch.

The girls hear Mr. Fisher tell of the time Duke Ellington and three of his band members spent the night at the house where Mr. Fisher rented a room. The band was playing in West Virginia, "and there was not one hotel in the state that would put him up and take his money for doin' it," Mr. Fisher says. "If he had a mind to rest himself in a bed, it was goin' to have to be in the home of some black person."

So Mr. Fisher and the other folks living at the rooming house got a free performance -- Duke Ellington live at the piano in the parlor.

The two other stories are reminiscences of Marian Anderson's singing in Washington: first, at the Lincoln Memorial, after she was denied the stage at Constitution Hall, and second, at the hall 25 years later.

Ms. Belton's style captures the natural cadences of the adults telling the stories (and the kids sometimes interrupting), and Mr. Cooper's soft paintings -- in oil wash on board -- won't disappoint fans of his earlier work, including "Chita's Christmas Tree." The full-page illustrations are tinged with the rosy, gold shimmer of daylight turned to dusk.

This is a rare treat, a picture book for pre-teens. There are five or six pages of text between illustrations, giving it a grown-up feel. A bonus is the list of books, audiotapes and videotapes that readers can use to find out more about Duke Ellington and Marian Anderson.

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