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The Importance of Artistic Storytelling

by Dr. James R. Gore

The missing narratives of African American history including the Great Migration in the canons of American History are being unveiled, especially, by African American scholars who have researched and published about the African American experience for over a Century.  

However, Jacob Lawrence and August Wilson are two American artistic dignitaries who brilliantly captured the essence of the Great Migration in some of their most essential works. Lawrence and Wilson whose works are nationally acclaimed, both embraced the African American aesthetic/worldview. Jacob Lawrence’s 1940 – 41, Migration Series, and August Wilson’s Pittsburg Cycle’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, and “Piano Lesson” depict the African American perspective of the Great Migration. 

JACOB LAWRENCE (American, 1917–2000)
During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern
Negroes During World War I there was a great migration north by
southern African Americans

Casein tempera on hardboard
Image: 12 × 18″ (30.5 × 45.7 cm)
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

The American Great Migration refers to the movement of six million African Americans leaving the Southern states to the Northern and Western states from the early 20th Century to the mid-1970s. They moved to urban areas including Seattle because of industrial jobs which was a transformation from the agricultural South. However, our educational institutions have mostly chosen to leave this story of American history out of the history books. Therefore, artists such as Jacob Lawrence and August Wilson used their platforms to implement “Soft Power,” the influence art may have in society to tell the stories of the African American experience. 

Education is the responsibility of each state, and the politically sensitive content of the curriculum can create social debate. Author Toni Morrison stated:

“The best art is political, and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”

Toni Morrison

In addition, August Wilson said: 

“All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”

August Wilson

These quotes reflect the importance of African American artists and their artistic method of teaching American stories.  

The lack of authentic and creditable cultural history in our educational institution is alarming. Research revealed: “There seems to be a relationship between how an individual perceives himself/herself and social or institutional perceptional influence,” (Gore, 2000, p.26). Many artists have provided an Autoethnography of their cultural experience, and their art has educated and provided insights into our own culture(s), as well as educating others about our culture(s).