If I could say that someone waved a magic wand around me, I would say it is because of Jacob Lawrence, an important artist whose work continues to refresh the imagination to this day. I first saw half of the Migrations Series in the 1970s at the Philllips Collection in D.C. I think because of Richard J. (Rick) Powell, who was then a artist/scholar/curator kind of guy. I was stunned. These little paintings told stories about the South and the very real reasons that Black people left-had to leave. The next time I saw the panels was at the Whitney I think along with other series, The Builders, etc. Again, the stories in colors vivid and bold lines–the generosity towards Black folks, the pride of Black folks, the folk of Black folks–his painting allowed the narrative to sing through.
So when Elizabeth Alexander (she’s the very tall imposing diva next to moi) asked me to create a poem in response to the Series, I was both excited and terrified. How to do justice to this work? How not imitate in words what he had already done in paint? How to add to the discourse on the Black Migration? How. Last August when I was the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I re-looked at each of the panels and realized that Panel 57 was what I returned to. She’s the only single female figure in the entire series. She’s wearing white. There’s a cross in the picture. I thought of my cousin Hassie, who was head Usher at the Baptist church she attended. I thought of the aunts who came down from Chicago and Detroit looking fly. I thought of the harsh beauty of the south and the hard heartedness of southern white leadership. And then I realize that the best way into the poem was through scent. If you get the catalog you can read “Lave”. If you attend the exhibition, up till September 7, you can hear me and the other poems read our work in one of exhibition room. You can hear great music in other rooms (I am in a picture with the great opera singer, Kevin Maynard) On May 1, May Day, International Worker’s Day, we read at the Museum of Modern Art.
Hopefully, this link will take to what was one of my proudest moments as a poet and a Black woman who has lived long enough to know the harsh beauty remains in the South as does menace towards Black people, poor people–but I also know that the struggles have moved North, have taken a more complicated hard heartedness. But like our ancestors, we keep moving and when needed like the laundress, we find work, we do the work, we stand on whatever ground we can.
Again, I thank Elizabeth Alexander. Leah Dickerman, Sarah Kennedy, Jennifer Harris and a great crew at MOMA; the film studio guys, the really nice guards, the wait staff for any and all dinners, the whole sense of conviviality. Because ultimately, Lawrence shows how Black people embrace life in all of its complications from loving to loss; from brutality to struggles for justice. We really do keep on keeping on. And if you cannot embrace that simple thought you are starved of humanity. Praises to the Ancestors. Praises to the poets.
The reading was live streamed on youtube, here is the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdPZ5Wag9BM#action=share