The Life and Work of Jacob Lawrence

Black History Month provides a time to talk about the accomplishments of African Americans like Jacob Lawrence.

By Daniella Garran

Jacob Lawrence lessons

February is Black History Month which provides an opportunity to discuss and delve into the lives of some influential African Americans, such as artist Jacob Lawrence. An Atlantic City, New Jersey native, Jacob Lawrence moved to Harlem at the age of seven after his parents separated. At 16, Lawrence took up painting and trained at the Harlem Art Workshop at the New York Public Library's 5th Street branch. Eventually, Lawrence was awarded a scholarship to the American Artists School and secured a job working for the Works Progress Administration. Most of Lawrence’s work focused on the history and plight of African-Americans. At the age of 23, Lawrence finished his most famous work which was entitled "Migration of the Negro," but is more commonly referred to as "The Migration Series." The series depicted the mass movement of African-Americans from the South to the North in the years following World War I. Lawrence’s work is featured in many renowned American museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum; one of his works even hangs in the White House.

The time and place in which Lawrence worked is as important as the subject matter he painted. Students should be introduced to Lawrence’s work as both a result of and an influence on the Harlem Renaissance. One way to introduce students to Lawrence's work is by  having a Harlem Renaissance festival or a Night at the Apollo which features the work of poets Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong and the dramatic works of Zora Neale Hurston.

For teachers seeking to educate students about Lawrence’s style and media, consider having them paint their own auto-biographical series in the style of "The Migration Series." Additionally, you may consider having students illustrate a poem written by a Harlem Renaissance poet in Lawrence’s style. What follows are more ideas for teaching students about the work of Jacob Lawrence.

Jacob Lawrence Lessons and Activities:

Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: Removing the Mask

This is an outstanding lesson focusing on Lawrence’s "Migration" series. Students learn not only about Lawrence’s work, but they also have the opportunity to compare and contrast the themes with those in nineteenth and twentieth century African-American poetry. Students become familiar with the social, political and historical context in which these works were created in addition to examining the symbolism inherent in the work of Lawrence and several poets.

Jacob Lawrence's Freedom Trail

For educators seeking to integrate art into an English curriculum, this lesson provides just such an opportunity. Students examine the lives of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass through biographical sources and then will analyze the work of Lawrence which depicts their lives visually. Not only will students learn about the lives and accomplishments of several important African-Americans, but they also develop an understanding of a particular artistic style and its effectiveness.

Long, Long Road to Harlem

This lesson offers students an opportunity to learn about Lawrence’s work vis-à-vis the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural movement. Students learn about the technique Lawrence used to create visual narratives. They also are introduced to other artists, including musicians and photographers who were instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance movement. The work of all these artists will be examined in terms of the influence of African-Americans’ experiences as slaves.