Who lynch and run
Who are scared of me
And me of them
I pick up my life
And take it away
On a one-way ticket
Gone up north
Gone out west
—One Way Ticket by Langston Hughes, from The Weary Blues (1938) (Cover illustration by Jacob Lawrence)
* * *
“Where in the world is Milwaukee, Wisconsin?”
This was the first thing my great-grandmother said when she saw the return address on a letter she received from her sister-in-law. The year was 1950. The family had just moved to Jackson, Tennessee, after having moved around quite a bit, as my great-grandfather chased work in the wildly exploitive trade of sharecropping. He would make his own way northward shortly after securing work at a foundry there, likely through his brother-in-law. He later sent word for my grandmother to join him. She would make Milwaukee her home in 1955 and never look back.
As a child, when I was told the story of how our black family landed in the coldest and whitest of places, I came to understand that I am part of a greater story, of millions of black and brown women and men who stole away to Canaan Land, as Mahalia Jackson sings in “I’m On My Way.” (She, too, is part of this great story, having resettled in Chicago from Louisiana.)
I considered my family’s story as I looked at the 60 tempera paintings of dark, faceless people represented in “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.” Lawrence’s complete series has been brought together at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for the first time in 20 years, and is being shown through September 7. In addition to Lawrence’s iconic paintings, the exhibition features a host of cultural artifacts of the period, providing a deep contextual layering of the social and cultural history of the Great Migration. Curator Leah Dickerman dives into the environment that facilitated Lawrence’s work, to include music (Duke Ellington, Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Lead Belly) juxtaposed with archival video (Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday) and augmented by first-edition texts and prints from WPA writers (Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes) and photographers (Margaret Bourke-White, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks).
This ambitious and comprehensive exhibition is the art-history companion to Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 award-winning winning epic, The Warmth of Other Suns. Lynching, environmental disasters, the Great Depression, peonage, plunder, and more drew out a mass of over 6 million black Southerners, from 1910 through the early 1970s, to Northern and Western cities. Dickerman credits her vision for the exhibit partially to Wilkerson’s book.