And the Migrants Kept Coming by Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence

And the Migrants Kept Coming, 1940–41, Casein tempera on hardboard, 30.5 x 45.7 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy, 28.1942.30, © 2019 Jacob Lawrence / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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Driven by Hope

Commentary by

In this work, the last of sixty painted panels in a series, Jacob Lawrence captures a scene of faceless migrants from the American South. They are crowded on a railway platform waiting for the next train north, hoping for an escape from oppressive segregation. The partial representation of individuals at the left and right margins of the painting intimate a larger group of travellers than those captured within the frame. The migrants’ vividly coloured clothes dotted against the dull brown background serve as a metaphor of bright hope against the dismal background of the life they are seeking to escape in the South. Within the panel, figures both young and old are crowded onto the platform, along with items of luggage of various sizes.

Like Lawrence’s migrants, a sizeable community led by Ezra embarked on a life-changing trek from Babylon to Judah. They too journeyed with young and old alike, and all their worldly possessions. For the travellers in the mid-1900s, however, the journey was relatively quick and straightforward when compared with the migration led by Ezra.

Despite Ezra 7’s succinct account, Ezra and his company experienced all the hardships of travelling on foot. Without the luxury of a train, they were compelled to journey 900 miles across the Fertile Crescent, which would have taken approximately four months. Furthermore, because of the substantial quantities of silver and gold in their possession, they faced the constant threat of attack from thieves and robbers.

Both Ezra’s community and the migrants from the South in Lawrence’s day were relentlessly driven by a sense of hope, a hope that enabled them to overcome the hardships and risks of travel and prepare them for an uncertain future. For Ezra’s community, however, the hope represented more than just a desire for material prosperity. Their motivation was additionally inspired by spiritual goals. When the Jews returned to the land of Israel, they could reconnect with their past by once again living in the land that God promised to their forefathers. Furthermore, Artaxerxes empowered them to rebuild the temple of Solomon and re-establish worship in the place where God placed his name.

Lawrence’s immigrants remained less certain of where they would settle.

 

References

Roberts, J. 2015. ‘The Migration Series: Panels 1–60’, in Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, ed. by L. Dickerman and E. Smithgall, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 12–45, 166

Yamauchi, E. 2009. ‘Ezra and Nehemiah’, in The Illustrated Bible Background Commentary of the Old Testament, Vol. 3, ed. by J. Walton, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 339