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The Perseverance of Hope during the Great Migration: Argumentative Essay

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Art is a highly personal and subjective form of expression and is often inspired by real events or other art pieces. The various forms of art often offer another layer of depth to other forms of art when used in tandem with each other, such as with music and dancing or poetry and paintings. As with most art, any poem or painting may have multiple subjective meanings, but when interpreted together, one may be able to look at the deeper layers informing the respective art pieces. In his painting, They Were Very Poor, Jacob Lawrence uses negative space and shape to emphasize the hardships African-American’s faced during the time of the Great Migration and he uses color to symbolize their hope for life in the midst of dire circumstances. Sandra Gilbert’s poetic interpretation of the same painting, called “Jacob Lawrence’s “They Were Very Poor””, expands on this idea and gives historical context using diction, symbolism, and abnormal grammar.

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917, grew up in Harlem, New York and was the most renowned African-American artist of his time, drawing his inspiration from African-American history (“Jacob Lawrence.”). His style of painting can be described as a mixture of Expressionism and Cubism (“Lawrence’s Style.”), and he often painted in narrative series, choosing to focus on a single subject and developing the idea through the various paintings. His most famous series is called The Migration Series completed in 1941, and it is this series that the painting They Were Very Poor is a part of. The Migration Series focuses on the collective experience of the African-American during the Great Migration that took place during World War I as African-Americans moved North in search of better employment and better living conditions (Wolkoff). The South at the time, was suffering economically as their crops were failing from a boll weevil infestation and the North was looking for workers to fill the shortage left by workers leaving to fight in the war and by slowing European immigration, encouraging African-Americans Northward (“The Great Migration.”). Jim Crow laws were also not in effect in the North which meant they were freer socially and politically, as racial attitudes toward them were slightly better (although there was still segregation) and the right to vote was not restricted from them. In many ways, the North was seen as a “promise land” for African-American people as living there had the potential to elevate their social, economic, and political standings in American society. However, life was still hard for them as the North could not keep up with the large influx of people into its cities leading to poverty and overcrowding which was intensified for African-American communities as racial segregation lead to the rise of ghettos and poor healthcare. (“The Great Migration.”)

A major element of They Were Very Poor that stands out, is the scarcity of features present in the painting in comparison to the expanse of negative space surrounding them. This not only visually conveys the extent of their poverty but also reflects the unfulfilled potential African-Americans were met with in the North. The painting depicts a pair of African-American people sitting side by side at a nearly bare dinner table, containing only two seemingly empty bowls and their respective spoons. The wall behind them is also plain, absent of anything besides a lone pot hanging from a plain, black nail and board. The surface area of both the table and wall is huge with the potential to contain bountiful dinners and many decorations or kitchen supplies, respectively, yet they only contain the most basic of necessities. Similar to having only a few bowls to fill a table with room for a feast, the North only provided a few more pieces of equality than the South did, when they had the potential to do much more, had racial discrimination not been so prevalent.

Another major element of the painting is how Lawrence uses shape and color to create an overall somber mood while still containing a small, persevering sense of hope for transformation. The subject’s eyes are very dark and placed low on their head as if their heads were bowed and their eyes either closed or downcast. Their posture also seems to be hunched over as Lawrence places their heads almost on the same horizontal axis of their shoulders and their necks are not visible as they would be if they were sitting straight. Only the man’s mouth is seen in the painting and it’s straight, further adding to the seriousness of his expression. They could perhaps be looking grimly at their empty bowls or praying solemnly, creating a very somber feeling within the viewer. Lawrence adds to this feeling with his use of dark, warm colors. The dominate colors are a warm teal and dark brown, giving the painting an overall dark mood. However, teal covers most of the canvas and as a variant of blue conveys a sense of renewal. Despite an overall dark mood, there is still a sense of having a new beginning with a chance to be renewed just as African-Americans had the chance to re-establish their position within society by migrating to the North despite their poverty and hardship.

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Sandra Gilbert was born in 1936 and grew up in New York City. In contrast to Jacob Lawrence, her art medium is poetry and her work focused more on feminist topics and grief rather than racial commentary (“Sandra M. Gilbert.”). In fact, her most famous work, “The Madwoman in the Attic”, is a feminist literary critic on Victorian women writers. However, in a collection of poems called “Judgement Day”, which “Jacob Lawrence’s “They Were Very Poor”” is a part of, Gilbert considers the histories that shape human identities. Inspired by his painting and the history behind it, Gilbert wrote her poetic interpretation of the painting, faithfully reflecting on the difficulties of life as an African-American as the painting does, but through her words instead of images.

Gilbert uses diction and symbolism to create a somber tone within her poem, fitting with the dark mood of the painting, faithfully reflecting how African-Americans felt living under during the undesirable circumstances of the Great Migration. She uses words such as “bowed” (Gilbert line 1), “brooding” (Gilbert line 4) and “lost” (Gilbert line 7) throughout out the poem, creating the overall tone of despair, and communicates the jarring contrast of living in poverty when one previously had so much before by listing the many things they had and lost, “yams, melons… squirrels, & all/ the Big House stuff” (Gilbert lines 7-9). However, the end of her poem ends with a more hopeful tone by describing a “sky-bright wall” (Gilbert line 22) and a “great cauldron” (Gilbert line 23) in “danger// of a new nail” (Gilbert lines 24-25). The “sky-bright wall” (22) brings to mind the color blue, symbolizing renewal, and is put together with a “cauldron”(23), a symbol of transformation (Coughlin). These symbols connect to idea that African-Americans had hope to renew and transform their position and identity in American society through Northern migration. This hope, however, is very precarious because of this “new nail”(25), which could symbolize the racism and segregation that African-Americans lived under in replacement of the “old nail”—slavery. Under racism and segregation the hope of gaining a better social position was in danger of being squashed if African-Americans let it squash their identity and self-worth, but fortunately they didn’t. Although the poem is dominated by a somber tone, the note of hope it ends on lines up faithfully with how Lawrence portrays the Great Migration as a dark time lightened only by the hope for a better future.

Gilbert also plays with grammar in her poem to convey the mix of emotions African-Americans may have been feeling during the Great Migration. There is almost no capitalization present in the poem, not even for “god” (Gilbert line 15) , save for the words “Big House” (Gilbert line 9), referring the title given to a slave master’s house. From a religious standpoint, “God” is almost always capitalized to show respect to the true God (from the Christian point of view) and to convey his power and ultimate authority over the little ‘g’ “gods”. By capitalizing “Big House” (9) and not “god” (15), Gilbert seems to imply that the “Big House” (9), and therefore slave owners, had more power and authority over African-American lives than God did. This may be Gilbert’s personal atheism sneaking into the poem (‘Gilbert, Sandra M.’) , as religion and the church was very important the African-American community during the Great Migration (“The Great Migration.”), but it could also be implying the tension many may have felt with God for their long-standing, detestable position in society and the many injustices coming out of racial tensions as it describes God as having “forgotten them” (Gilbert line 16). However, even if some African-Americans had abandoned God and seen the “Big House” (9) as a more prevalent power in their lives, it was a power they were no longer subject to as they had lost “the Big House stuff” (Gilbert line 9), leaving them with only a “bowl of empty/ color” (Gilbert lines 21-22) . This “bowl of empty color” (21-22) not only alludes to the empty bowls in Lawrence’s painting, but can also signify the blank slate African-Americans have been given through their chance to start a new life in the North, and implies that they can color their “bowl”, or life, with their own brand of beauty born out of their struggles. Thus, Gilbert’s play on grammar seems to imply that although some may have given into the stark idea of being forgotten by God and given over to malicious slave owners, there is hope because they have escaped slavery and have power over their own destinies.

The Great Migration was a dark time for African-Americans, but it was also a time of progress, however slow it was. Lawrence, inspired by history, was moved to express artistically how humans have the impressive capacity to hope for better things even in the darkest realities. Gilbert, inspired by Lawrence’s art, faithfully interprets the same idea in her own artistic expression, translating the visual into textual while still communicating the same theme. Gilbert’s poem also contributes to the understanding of Lawrence’s They Were Very Poor as it alludes to the history of African-Americans to help those who perhaps don’t know much about the context of the painting or need a refresher. Thus, art can be used to help interpret and understand other forms of art in their commentary of life.

Works Cited

  1. Coughlin, Sara. “Cauldrons, Broomsticks & Pointy Hats – A Real Witch Explains These Common Symbols.” History Of Witch Symbols: Broomsticks, Cauldrons & More, 29 Oct. 2019, 11:00am ,
  2. ‘Gilbert, Sandra M.’ Contemporary Poets . . 21 Nov. 2019 .
  3. “The Great Migration.” AAME,;jsessionid=f8302598671574323359586?migration=8&bhcp=1.
  4. “Jacob Lawrence.” Smithsonian American Art Museum,
  5. “Lawrence’s Style.” Jacob Lawrence, 23 Feb. 2010,
  6. “Sandra M. Gilbert.”, Academy of American Poets,
  7. Schilb, John, and John Clifford. Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. 7thth ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, pp. O-P.
  8. Wolkoff, Julia. “A Closer Look at Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series,’ the Masterpiece He Made at 23.” Artsy, 20 Oct. 2018,

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