Monday, June 09, 2008

"And the Migrants Kept Coming"

On Saturday I went to an amazing exhibit at the Phillips Collection. Over the course of the next few months, the museum will be showing Jacob Lawrence's "The Migration Series." Rarely shown in its entirety, the series is a dramatic depiction of the great migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north in the years during and after World War I. The work was commissioned in 1940 and contains 60 individual panels showing the social, economic, cultural, and demographic dimensions of the Great Migration. While this site is not meant as a venue for art appreciation, I will say that the work is absolutely stunning and incredibly moving.

As I was viewing the work, though, I couldn't help but think of the political consequences of the Great Migration. While I've written about this from time to time, it was interesting to have a different frame of reference through which to view this event. One cannot overstate, I don't think, the ways in which our political system was affected by this unprecedented movement of people. As northern industrial cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia saw their black populations explode, their politics were altered as well. For a sense of this urban demographic change, check out this table from the "Historical Statistics of Black America":

A city like Detroit went from having a black population of just under 6,000 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1930!! Chicago saw its African-American population grow six fold during the same time period. As we explore the contours of political change, the affect that the Great Migration had on our politics is staggering.

Whereas Lawrence subtitled Panel 60 of his work "And the Migrants Kept Coming," he could have just as easily said "And the Voters Kept Coming."

***Above--Panel 1 of the Migration Series

No comments: