SALEM — “The history of the United States fascinates me,” said the great Black painter Jacob Lawrence, in perhaps the understatement of his life. Born in New Jersey in 1917, Lawrence consumed that history like a coal-fired engine, burning through its back pages and defining Black American art through the middle of the last century: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, The Great Migration, and the abolitionist John Brown were just some of the weighty figures and chapters he took on, their stories entwined with his own in the pantheon of Black American cultural life.
There are reasons for that. A departure from his life’s project of painting the particulars of Black history, Lawrence’s broader tale vexed expectations, leaving “The American Struggle” to fade and then scatter. Its first showing would be the only time all 30 panels were seen together; the work was sold as a group, then dispersed one by one. Today, two panels are too fragile to travel, and fully five are whereabouts unknown. The remaining 23, reunited at the Peabody Essex Museum for the first time since, have aged into a fraught moment in American history all too well. Their time, maybe, has finally come.
There’s no uncoupling Lawrence from “The Migration Series,” the 60 panels he made while in his early 20s featuring Black Americans moving en masse from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North. The series is a spare, potent chronicle of the brutal mechanics of a foundational moment in the country’s contemporary life. Looking at “The American Struggle,” though, is to see a plucky seedling sprouted into a mighty tree. In “Struggle,” the vastness of Lawrence’s ambition is matched by his artistic clout. His colors seethe and burn; his scenes are dense knots of form and action — dynamic, angular, alive. I came expecting to be moved by circumstance, to be swept up and held tight by the stories Lawrence told, as with the many times I saw “The Migration Series” up close. Instead, I was engulfed by his painterly might — the impossibly vibrant and sensual world his delicate egg tempera washes conjure as though by dark magic.
Lawrence, who spent almost five years researching “The American Struggle” before putting brush to board, would have seen them in sequence — he numbered them, loosely chronologically. All 30 panels, missing or otherwise, are represented here — some by grainy reprint, some by empty frame — but I can’t walk you through step-by step. That’s for you to drink in, and drink deeply, on your own. I can point to a few favorites, smoldering in the gallery’s low light: A dense cluster of upright figures puts Sacajawea, the Native American translator, in a robe of fiery crimson at its center as she’s reunited with her brother, years after being separated by war. Shards of bodies — arms and legs, hands, heads — build to a craggy point as a cluster of Massachusetts Bay Colony slaves bring their complaint to the governor. (“We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! — petition of many slaves, 1773″ reads its title, in Lawrence’s history-quoting fashion.) A dead horse, draped in a tarp, bleeds into pale snow as a troop of revolutionary soldiers trudges on to the next battle.
If that sounds like a departure from the standard American epic, you’re exactly right. Lawrence’s is a people’s history, a subversion of the “great man” myth. His crossing of the Delaware in December 1776 has no General Washington, but instead three boatloads of bloodied soldiers, swaddled against the cold as they pitch and roll with the waves. Paul Revere, astride a black horse, is swallowed in the darkness of Lawrence’s chaotic night. Farmers and laborers, the hidden scaffolding behind the gilded republic, are his forlorn heroes; immigrants are given their due. Native Americans, often minimized in the epic of national myth-making, are foregrounded.
And slavery looms large, as it should. But thinking of “Struggle” in terms of Lawrence’s most famous narrative — as a marginalized history of Black America — misses every point about it. Lawrence predicated the series on conflict, inflection points where liberty was challenged. The early American story is one of triumph — freedom won, a society born. “The American Struggle” lays bare plain fact: From the very start, the pursuit of liberty was suffered by all, but its result enjoyed only by some.
Here, history meets present. For too many, “The American Struggle" — for basic freedoms, for equal rights, for simple respect — never stopped. Lawrence will forever be known as one of the greatest Black American artists — “our Michaelangelo,” as the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently put it. But Lawrence imagined a wider scope, and his catalog of exclusions is damningly broad. “The American Struggle” surely rankled those in its time who wanted Lawrence to fit a category, check a box.
Its power, in this moment when history is being cracked open and neglected facts bleeding all over, is its defiance of simplicity — its insistence on history as a bloody mess. We’re all in this together, he seems to say. Overlooked for years, “The American Struggle” feels suddenly urgent, for the country and artist both. It’s time to stop thinking of Lawrence as a great African-American artist, and embrace him for the great American artist he was.
JACOB LAWRENCE: THE AMERICAN STRUGGLE
Through April 26. At the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. 866-745-1876, www.pem.org