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- I. Introduction
- II. Goals, Objectives and Strategies
- III. Biography of Jacob Lawrence and His Thematic Characters
- ____A. Jacob Lawrence
- ____B. Frederick Douglass
- ____C. Harriet Tubman
- IV. Lawrence’s Narrative History of Douglass (Selected slides from national touring exhibition)
- ____A. Douglass’s Birthplace
- ____B. A Mother’s Visit
- ____C. Slaves Living Quarters
- ____D. Prohibited Education
- ____E. Douglass Refuses a Flogging
- ____F. A Conspired Escape
- ____G. Learning a Slave Trade
- ____H. The Fugitive
- ____I. The Lecturer
- ____J. The Publisher
- V. Lawrence’s Narrative History of Tubman
- ____A. A Childhood in Maryland
- ____B. The First Sting of Slavery
- ____C. Water Girl to Field Hands
- ____D. Shrieks of Flogged Women
- ____E. Northern Star
- ____F. The Underground Railroad
- ____G. Daybreak—A Time To Rest
- ____H. The Fugitive Slave Law
- ____I. Union Nurse
- ____J. Rest in Peace
- VI. Lesson Plans
- VII. Chronology of Jacob Lawrence’s Life
- VIII. Footnotes
- IX. Appendix
- ____A. Teacher Bibliography
- ____B. Student Bibliography
- ________C. Classroom Materials
- ________1. Lawrence’s slides for Douglass’s Narrative
- ________2. Lawrence’s slides for Tubman’s Narrative
At Roberto Clemente Middle School, our literature based reading program will lend itself nicely to an interdisciplinary approach to learning which will become the basis for this curriculum unit. We will have selected reading from Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and the biography Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. We will develop writing assignments related to these materials in the form of chapter summaries, character descriptions, and perhaps a book report. Certainly group discussions will become most interesting as we analyze what Douglass is relating to us on the surface but more so as we begin to explore with analytical and critical thinking skills as well as inferred meanings. Additionally, we will integrate our unit with the Clemente Art Department. We hope to have some of our young talented artists attempt to reproduce some of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings. We will also secure slides from Mr. Lawrence’s national traveling exhibition to serve as a pictorial narrative guide for our project.
My strategies for teaching this unit will reflect a diversified, interdisciplinary approach. Students will be challenged with comprehensive silent and oral readings; summarizing, finding the main idea and context skills; analytical and inferential skills; and writing and communication skills. The slides will lend themselves nicely to group lectures and oral discussions, especially concerning interpreted meanings. Throughout the autobiography of Douglass, we will highlight his heroic accomplishments as we analyze the mechanics of his writing and his writing style.
By 1936, Lawrence had established himself with many great figures of the Harlem Renaissance. He shared an art studio with painter Charles Alston at 306 West 141st Street—a famous meeting place for luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Alaine Locke, Claude McKay, and Aaron Douglas. His early work continued to be influenced by painters Romare Beardon, Ronald Joseph, and his future wife Gwendolyn Knight as well as sculptor Augusta Savage. His earliest works date from around 1936 and these were typically scenes of the Harlem community.
As a teenager, Lawrence spent much of his time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art studying the techniques of Renaissance painters such as Botticelli and Crivelli. He also studied abstract painters and he shared Harlem community interest in African art and African culture. Through these influences his style became one of brightly-colored images, concerned with the drama of the human struggle. A distinctive feature of Lawrence’s paintings is his usage of a narrative, historical documentary. He was inspired by the Harlem community to develop a keen interest in the stories of early black leaders and to read about their struggles and their deep convictions. Because of his deeply-rooted search for cultural identity, Lawrence’s paintings adapted a narrative style to teach Black History to better convey the emotions and the ideas in the stories which he wished to tell. “I have always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools. . . . I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing. They had to liberate themselves without any education. Today we can’t go about it in the same way. Any leadership would have to be the type of Frederick Douglass. . . . How will it come about? I don’t know. I’m not a politician, I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about.”3
Frederick Douglass was born in 1818, in Talbot County, Maryland, the son of a Caucasian father whom he never knew and an enslaved mother who was separated from him while he was just a babe. He lived on a plantation as a slave and, in his autobiography, he details the harsher than normal treatment that he received due to his mixed parentage. At the age of eight, he was sent to Baltimore, to the Auld family, to work as a houseboy. This turn of events proved very fortunate for Douglass because he was taught to read under the kind tutelage of Mrs. Auld.
In 1833, Douglass was returned to Talbot County to work as a laborer. Because of his rebellious nature, he was soon assigned to a Mr. Covey, a man who had a reputation as a slave breaker. Having thwarted a second attempt by Mr. Covey of being flogged, Douglass was again sent to Baltimore, this time to work in the shipyards. Soon after learning a shipping trade and being able to read, Douglass succeeded in escaping and making his way to New York City. There he married Anna Murray and they settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, eventually having five children. Later in life Douglass joined the forces of William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement, lecturing throughout the Northeast, narrating his life as a slave, detailing the cruelty and the inhumane treatment of the slaving system.
Harriet Tubman, like Douglass, was born a slave in Maryland around 1820. She was one of eleven children and she was forced to begin work at age five. When she was about fifteen, she felt her first sting of slavery when an over-seer struck Harriet on the head with an iron bar, which left her with a dented skull and a kind of seizure that plagued her the rest of her life. Because of her field work, Harriett developed great strength and endurance through plowing, cutting and loading wood. In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black man, and in 1849 she escaped to a free Pennsylvania, guided mainly by the North Star.
In the North, Harriet worked as a domestic, saving her monies to liberate other slaves. From the beginning, she was guided by spiritual visions and her strong belief in God. In 1850, she returned to the South, freeing over three hundred slaves by means of the Underground Railroad. During a period of ten years, she became one of the most notorious “conductors” on the Railroad, with a reward of $40,000 offered for her head due to her daring and elusive nature. She was able to rescue most of her brothers and sisters as well as her parents. Because of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Harriet was forced to bring her peoples to Canada to avoid recapture.
Harriet Tubman was also a friend of Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and she became active in the abolitionist movements of the North. She was well known for her moving speeches on the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. During the Civil War, Tubman served the North, especially as a nurse and as a spy. Her services were invaluable. After the war she settled down in Auburn, New York, continuing to work with her people. When she died in 1913, a large mass meeting was held in her honor and a bronze memorial was erected on the county courthouse.
The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman series are unique in Lawrence’s work for several reasons. The artist pursued figures who were related by their history, social condition, and race. Additionally, both were determined to free their minds and their bodies from slavery. Each series depicts personal journeys. “Frederick Douglass cut a path from ignorance and learning to self-knowledge; he traveled from being a pawn of the circumstances of his birth to independence, responsibility, and action. Harriet Tubman journeyed from slavery to a freedom that transformed her into a mythical figure of a New World Moses acting out her role against the ancient and powerful symbolic resonance of the enslaved Jews of the Old Testament, their exile and wandering in the wilderness, and their eventual entry, after trials and privation, to a new homeland and the condition of freedom.4 The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman series are among five historical narratives that Jacob Lawrence painted during the early years of his life. All are concerned with the history of Black Americans, their struggles against slavery, and their efforts to find a better life.
The First Sting of Slavery
When Harriet was about fifteen years old, she received her first beating when she was struck on her head with an iron bar by an overseer on the plantation. In this painting Harriet is viewed as she is lying on the ground unconscious as the overseer retreats. A black snake slithers toward Harriet, symbolically conveying evil and wickedness, representative of plantation life.
Water Girl To Field Hands
As Harriet grew older, she became a very strong woman with large massive arms and hands. Her daily tasks consisted of cutting wood, plowing fields and hauling logs. She was about five feet tall, stocky and very strong.
Shrieks of Flogged Women
In this horror scene at night, Lawrence paints a shadowy vision of slave women being whipped. This abstract painting seemingly captures the loud screams and shrieks of these tortured souls as the overseer, whip in hand and sleeves rolled up, goes about his evening duties. The women’s hands are vividly painted as they beg for mercy.
In this painting, Harriet is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Having been frequently whipped and poorly fed, as well as having incurred head injuries when struck with that iron bar, Harriet’s master sold her. Mr. Lawrence creates a very interesting perspective with this work because we view the auction through the eyes of the slave being sold as she watches men with whips and chains waiting to bid on her human flesh. I found myself returning often to this painting to gain a clearer insight into the cruelties of the slavery system and the despair of the individual participants.
Three paintings in this narrative series involve the dramatic northern escapes to freedom against the vivid background of the night sky and the North Star to be used as the guiding light. In the first instance, Harriet is viewed as breaking from the chains of slavery with her hands extended upward towards the North Star as if to pull herself to freedom. She carries a few belongings in a red traveling case and her eyes are wide open, casting fearful glances over her shoulder. The symbolic black snake lurks nearby as she starts on her long, lonely journey. She is between the ages of twenty and twenty-five and Mr. Lawrence paints her in a white robe to express the “purity of her mission”.
The second painting lacks any human figure. Rather, the scene is a wooded landscape on a clear night with many stars in the skies, and a flesh-toned hand lays across the evening sky as if to signal the direction in which Harriet is to travel. The caption beneath the landscape offers a $500 reward for Harriett’s capture and the wording describes Harriet as a piece of property rather than as a human being.
“$500 Reward! Runaway from subscriber on Thursday night, the 4th inst., from the neighborhood of Cambridge, my negro girl, Harriet, sometimes called Minty. Is dark chestnut color, rather stout build, but bright and handsome. Speaks rather deep and has a scar over the left temple. She wore a brown plaid shawl.(signed) George Carter Broadacres, near Cambridge, Maryland September 24th, 1849”8 In the third Northern Star painting, Harriett’s figure bends forward in her stride to freedom, guided once again by the bright starlight. Her white robe moves across the wooded landscape, enshrouded by the hills and valleys. She travels by night and hides by day, sleeping behind trees or crouched in swamp areas to avoid recapture.
I will give the above reward captured outside the county, and $300 if captured inside the county, in either case to be lodged in the Cambridge, Maryland jail.
Harriet’s rescue efforts became very widely known. She was very clever with disguises and went undetected as she moved from plantation to plantation. The plantation owners wished to capture her and to burn her at the stake. Panels 18 and 19 of Lawrence’s series deal with the constant search for Tubman and the $40,000 bounty that was placed on her head because she was so bold, daring and elusive.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, which forced the return of slaves found North of the Mason and Dixon line. Subsequently, the Underground Railroad extended its network of escape routes into Canada. Panel 20 illustrates Harriet and two of her charges trudging through the northern snow. Canada became a haven for fugitive slaves between 1850 and 1865.
Between 1851 and 1857, St. Catherines in Canada became home for Harriet Tubman. One of the northernmost stops on the Underground Railroad was Rochester, New York, and it was here that Harriet would work closely with Frederick Douglass. Tubman soon began to attend abolitionist meetings and it was there that she became an excellent speaker, relating the evils of slavery and the suffering of her people as only a person of Harriet’s experience could. Her speeches brought tears to the eyes and sorrow to the hearts of her listeners when she spoke. Panel 21 displays eager listeners clutching at the rail, wide-eyed and seemingly hanging on Harriet’s every word.
Harriet was also a hard working nurse during the Civil War. Utilizing her knowledge of herbs and roots, she was able to allay fevers, small pox and dysentery. Through her efforts, the lives of many Union soldiers were saved.
Harriet remained very active despite her old head injury received from that cruel overseer. She died on March 10, 1913 and was buried with military honors. A memorial service was held on June 12, 1914, and thousands of people came to pay their respects to a great humanitarian and heroine. Outside the county courthouse a memorial tablet was erected in Auburn.
Jacob Lawrence paints Panel 31 in a very reflective mood as he reflects on Tubman’s many trips to rescue the slaves as they were guided by the bright stars against the dark, blue sky. Frederick Douglass, in a letter he once wrote to Tubman, speaks of these stars and sky:
“The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day -you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scared and foot-sore bound men and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt ‘God Bless You!’ has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and to your heroism. Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”9
Douglass’s words will echo forever.
- 1.) Selected readings from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and the biography of Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People will be utilized to magnify the heroic accomplishments of the two great libertarians. Students will be challenged with oral and silent readings as they seek to develop critical thinking and analytical thinking skills. They will also be asked to search for main ideas, details, conclusions and subtle underlying messages.
- ________Within the context of each reading, students will be motivated to excel, to participate frequently in oral and written communication exercises, and to develop a greater appreciation for the sacrifices endured by their peoples in their quest for liberty, equality and opportunity.
- 2.) To gain a greater insight into the realities of the slavery system, students will be encouraged to listen carefully to oral readings of Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. After several paragraphs have been read, students will be better able to understand the cruel and inhumane treatment induced upon the slaves by plantation owners and their overseers. Following the oral readings, students will be encouraged to join group discussions. Sample questions to be discussed may be among the following:
- A. What are the circumstances influencing Douglass’s childhood? B. Compare your childhood relationship to your parents with Frederick’s relationship to his. C. Who were Frederick’s parents? D. Describe the whipping of Aunt Hester and the effect that this brutality had on Douglass.
- Students may also be encouraged to read other books about Frederick Douglass. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass deals primarily with his escape from slavery. These readings can be done on an individual basis.
- 3.) Slide presentations of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings will be developed to create a narrative history of two American slaves who escaped to freedom in the North and who lived to become major figures in the fight against slavery. Students will be encouraged to actively participate in group discussions as they carefully study each painting. I have selected ten paintings for both Douglas and Tubman with the hope that as a total entity they will dramatically examine the personal journeys of these two central characters. Additionally, each individual slide will serve to highlight important occurrences along their route to freedom and they will lend themselves very nicely to our literature studies as well.
- 4.) Geographical Map Locations will be developed by the instructor and students alike as we follow the routes to freedom as taken by Douglass and Tubman. We will follow them from their place of birth to their final resting place. We will also analyze the land boundaries of the states in which they traveled to see just how they compare to the present day boundary conditions.
- 5.) Encourage students to start autobiographies of their own lives.
- 6.) Role Playing:
- ____A. Demonstrate an incident involving a master-slave relationship.
- ____B. Show how a slave might have learned to read in secret.
- ____C. Imagine that you were with Harriet Tubman on The Underground Railroad. Explain how difficult it was for you to escape and how frightening it was on your journey. What were some of your secrets on making a successful getaway?
- 7.) List some dreams that they may have for their own futures. What can be done to make them come true?
- 1917 Born Atlantic City, New Jersey
- 1919 Moved to Pennsylvania
- 1930 Moved to New York City’s Harlem
- 1932-37 Studied at WPA-sponsored Harlem Art Workshops
- 1936 Painted first significant works, Harlem scenes
- 1937-39 Studied at American Artists School, New York. Painted first series, Toussaint L’Ouverture.
- 1938-39 Worked as easel painter on WPA Federal Art Project
- 1941 Married Gwendolyn Knight, painter and sculptor. Traveled to the South. Joined Downtown Gallery, New York.
- 1943-45 World War II, served In U.S. Coast Guard as combat artist; traveled on troop ship to Europe, Near East, India.
- 1944 First major one-person exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- 1946 Received Guggenheim Fellowship to paint War series. Taught at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, the beginning of his teaching career.
- 1954-70 Taught at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine; Pratt Institute, New York; Five Towns Music and Art Foundation, Long Island; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts; New School for Social Research, New York; Art Students League, New York; California State University, Hayward; University of Washington, Seattle.
- 1960 First retrospective exhibition, Brooklyn Museum, New York (toured nationally).
- 1964 Lived and worked in Nigeria.
- 1971 Appointed full professor, School of Art, University of Washington; moved to Seattle, where he still lives and works.
- 1974 Traveling retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
- 1978 Appointed commissioner, National Council of the Arts (six year term).
- 1979 Created first mural, Games, Kingdome Stadium, Seattle, Washington.
- 1983 Elected member, American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- 1986 Traveling retrospective, Seattle Art Museum.
- 1987 Retired from teaching. Professor Emeritus, School of Art, University of Washington.
- 1989 Seventh mural installed, Community, Government Services Administration building, Jamaica, New York.
- 1990 Completed his fifteenth series, Eight Sermons of the Creation from the Book of Genesis. Received National Medal of the Art, from President Bush.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Signet, 1968 (originally 1845).
Hughes, Langston and Milton Mettzer. A Pictorial History of the Negro in America. New York: Crown Publishers, 1968.
Powell, Richard J. Jacob Lawrence. New York, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1992.
Wheat, Ellen H. Jacob Lawrence, American Painter. Hampton: Hampton University, 1986.
Wheat, Ellen H. Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-40. Hampton: Hampton University, 1991.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. New York: Signet, 1968 (originally 1845).
Hughes, Langston. One Way Ticket. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948.
Lawrence, Jacob. Harriet and the Promised Land. New York: Windmill Books, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Smith, Kathie. Harriet Tubman. New York: Little Simon and Schuster, 1988.
B. Tubman Slide Collection by Jacob Lawrence
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