In this panel, Lawrence alludes to a long-running cultural trope in which African Americans are characterized as blackbirds and crows. This connection was particularly fortified by the designation of the segregation statutes that passed in Confederate states after 1877, when Reconstruction ended, as Jim Crow laws. While the history of the term is complex, its most prominent point of origin is Thomas Dartmouth Rice, one of the United States’s earliest blackface performers. As early as 1828, Rice, a white man, appeared on stage as Jim Crow, a grotesque racial caricature that became his signature act and brought him national fame. Throughout the Jim Crow era, which effectively ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black men and women were frequently caricatured as blackbirds and crows in musicals, stories, songs, and films. The term Jim Crow also lent itself to zoomorphic representation.
Weighed down with bags and boxes, a dense crowd of migrants pushes north, their bodies making a triangular shape that echoes the V-formation of the birds in flight above their heads. The birds’ easy movement through the air draws attention to the difficult journey of the migrants. The panel illuminates Lawrence’s search for ways to convey the powerful desire for change that drove the Great Migration. “We think of birds migrating,” he explained. “I guess we are very much like other kinds of animals in that we move for different reasons.”
The image of birds in flight underscores Lawrence’s depiction of the Migration as a mass phenomenon. Whereas his earlier series were multipanel narratives of the lives of outstanding individuals—Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman—this portrait is collective.
Lawrence uses the bird as a complex, ambivalent symbol that represents freedom and hope but also suggests that Jim Crow laws are driving people from their homes. His imagery echoes the lyrics of Lonnie Johnson’s “Blackbird Blues,” recorded in 1927.
If I was a blackbird, I’d pack my troubles on my back
I would leave this world, and I would never look back
In the same year that the Migration Series was completed—more than a century after Rice’s first performances as Jim Crow—Walt Disney Pictures released Dumbo, which features a group of jive-talking crows, speaking in
stereotyped Southern dialect, with a leader named Jim.
Decades later, in a series of drawings that feature cartoon characters from the 1930s and 1940s, artist Gary Simmons reflected on his childhood memories of watching early Disney movies like Dumbo and coming to realize how fraught they were with racial caricature.