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Jacob Lawrence, Massacre in Boston, 1954, egg tempera on hardboard, 12 × 16". From the series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” 1954–56.

Jacob Lawrence, Massacre in Boston, 1954, egg tempera on hardboard, 12 × 16". From the series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” 1954–56.

Jacob Lawrence

In 1961, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) spoke of his thirty-panel series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” 1954–56, as a crux in his oeuvre: “Years ago, I was just interested in expressing the Negro in American life, but a larger concern, an expression of humanity and of America, developed. My history series grew out of that concern.” Shown in its near entirety for the first time since 1958 (the show opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, earlier this year), the unfinished and under-studied “Struggle” reimagines roughly the first forty years of the United States’ nationhood, from the lead-up to the Revolutionary War to the settlement of the country’s frontier after the War of 1812. The planar, cubistic surfaces of the artist’s earlier narrative cycles yield to Baroque space, tenebrous and agitated. The folksy chestnut of Paul Revere’s ride becomes a fugue of human and equine speed, and Washington crossing the Delaware a humble flotilla of anonymous blanketed soldiers. We see a martyred Crispus Attucks vomiting blood; Thomas Jefferson’s quixotic yeoman farmer slumped under a crushing bounty of hay; delegates engaging in sweaty politicking at the Constitutional Convention; and Shawnee leader Tecumseh, abandoned by his British allies, defending Native American lands with his life at the Battle of the Thames. Guernican scenes of conflict are punctuated by intervals of anxious quiet: Laconic, intense images of idle cannons, slaughtered animals, and flowers appear on the ruined landscape.

How to look at Lawrence’s turn to “America”—conceived in humanist-universalist terms—at a time when the country no longer believes its own fables? When its foundational myths of exceptionalism, progress, and a common national project, feebly incanted by an etiolated center, are under pressure from iconoclastic historical reckoning on the left and revanchist white-identity politics on the right? Was this blood-soaked history represented in “Struggle” an imperfect expression, per Lawrence in the exhibition’s booklet, of “man’s constant search for the perfect society in which to live?” Or was it a document of mercenary extraction, domination, and genocide? What would the late artist think about the positioning—in one of the publication’s essays—of his maritime imagery and his service in the newly desegregated US Navy during World War II as heralding “the defense of American democratic ideals now promoted across the globe by integrated forces”? During his lifetime, Lawrence’s work and career were politicized in contradictory ways. In 1955, the artist’s dealer, Charles Alan, in keeping with Cold War efforts to propagandize US benevolence abroad, sought out contacts at the Ford Foundation in hopes of exhibiting the “Struggle” series internationally. Two years earlier, the FBI had created a file on Lawrence documenting his “subversive” ties to communist-connected cultural organizations.

Among the sources Lawrence consulted for “Struggle”—unmentioned in his 1954 application to the Chapelbrook Foundation, a nonprofit endowed by writer and editor Mina Kirstein Curtiss—were two books by blacklisted Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker. A quote from his American Negro Slave Revolts (1936) supplies the title for the series’ twenty-seventh panel, “. . . for freedom we want and will have, for we have served this cruel land long enuff. . . .” The speaker, unknown to mainstream history books, is Captain James, the organizer of an April 1810 rebellion to liberate his fellow enslaved people in Georgia and North Carolina. Locked in the brutal geometry of Lawrence’s composition, two freedom fighters engage in a mortal agon with their captors. One man, possibly James himself, holds a musket aloft in a reversal of Attucks’s subjugated pose as one of the slavers reaches for the gun. What of the fact that the pictured uprising never occurred? That in reality James’s letter was discovered and the uprising extinguished before it could ever begin? Does Lawrence present us with a bitter irony, a compensatory fiction, or an argument that history is not only a subject of representation but a field of struggle itself, unresolved and therefore up for grabs?