Bryan Stevenson on the power of art to communicate justice | MoMA BBC | THE WAY I SEE IT

Bryan Stevenson on the power of art to communicate justice | MoMA BBC | THE WAY I SEE IT


Bryan Stevenson: I’m Bryan Stevenson. I’m a human rights lawyer, who lives and
works in Montgomery, Alabama. The way I see Jacob Lawrence’s work is the
way I see great literature. It’s a story. He’s one of the great storytellers in art,
and I love that he felt the need to create whole depictions of African American life,
and in the African American community, storytelling is such a central part to how
the community has survived. I mean the most amazing thing about Jacob
Lawrence’s work, it’s black people depicted in color, with their full humanity on display. Their meditation, their labor, their joy,
their anguish, their pain, their grief… And The Migration Series, which is what we’re looking at, tells the story of this incredible period
in American history, where millions of black people fled the American
south for the north and west. The whole of the United States was shaped
by this incredible period that very few people talk about, very
few people know about. And Lawrence was one of the first people to
dramatize this massive phenomenon taking place in America, and particularly in the African American community, through these extraordinary paintings, which told every facet of the story. Leah Dickerman: One of the things that’s
very distinctive about this series is each of the panels has a caption, Bryan: Yeah. Leah: …and there’s this reflection of how do you
take these facts and create a story? Bryan: These images that convey the hardship
and the struggle are really powerful, and for someone like me, I grew up in a poor, racially segregated community, they speak to people like me. I could identify with these images. Everyday people, finding a way to cope with
these enormous challenges. Even though he didn’t in any way shy away
from the anguish of poverty, and the distress of being terrorized and threatened, and the grief of oppression and lynching. He could tell these stories, because he identified
with the full humanity and dignity and the aspirations that gave rise to the
stories, to the images. And we have this memorial in Montgomery to
victims of lynchings, And the thing that I find especially moving
is when you see African American families find their family name, and then some of them
will just weep. This response to having carried all of this
burden and violence in silence. Panel 15, which is the one that precedes this,
that has the noose on the tree. And what he wanted to focus on, not just the brutality of the violence, but
on the grief. Leah: You can see that there is also a kind
of play that Lawrence makes between Image 15 and 16, because 16 is saying that any individual act
of violence is bigger than that single act, because it has an impact on others around. Bryan: That’s right. And what’s most exciting about Jacob Lawrence’s
art, it’s an effort to end the silence, and when
you end silence and you can begin to speak truth, there’s just something powerful about that. And so, it was the task of 20th Century writers and artists, and to a certain extent, musicians, to kind of fill out this picture. And so the labor of African Americans, which
built this country, which was so central to the prosperity of
America, but had been minimized by the narratives that
shaped our rationalization of slavery gets expression. So that’s what you see here in Panel 4,
is the black body at work, and every person of color knows that, that you had to work, and that was certainly
true in my community, but there was also this understanding that
we had to understand the context of that work, And so in 34, he gives this nod to the black press,
and if it weren’t for these enterprising black journalists, who documented the real story of African American
life, we wouldn’t have known about many of the
lynchings, we wouldn’t have known about the Great Migration
with the detail that we understand it now, and it’s only when people like Jacob Lawrence
arrive on the scene, determined to create a new way of seeing this
history, understanding this history, that we begin to recognize the full power
that art can have in creating a new relationship to these really big ideas like freedom and equality and justice, and that’s what emerges in his work for
me, is this clear call for a new relationship
to what it means to be treated fairly, what it means to be seen as equal, and what justice requires.

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