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David and Art - The Great Migration and American Art

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

An art exhibit in Mississippi reflects one of the most significant events in twentieth century American history.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a book that I enjoy assigning in some of my history survey classes. Let me tell you of another one. It’s called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and was written by Isabel Wilkerson. The “Great Migration” of the title is the exodus of black Americans from the south to the north and the west that went on from about 1915 to about 1970. Without this story, American history is simply incomplete.

But does it say anything about art?

Yes, it does, and in just a few lines it says volumes. Three of jazz music’s most influential figures were, as Wilkerson puts it, “children of the Great Migration.” Miles Davis was born in 1926 in Alton, Illinois, a few years after his parents migrated north from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1917 and his family moved New York City when he was five. John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926 and moved to Philadelphia with his mother in 1943.

A trumpet player, a pianist, and a sax player: Three giants of American music whose lives were shaped by a choice to migrate out of the South in the years after World War I.

Right now, at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, there’s an exhibit called “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” featuring new works by 12 acclaimed Black artists. The museum’s chief curator Ryan Dennis points out that all 12 have some connection to the Great Migration. Painting, sculpture, film, and other media are all represented, and together they explore “the profound impact of the Great Migration on the social and cultural life of the United States from historical and personal perspectives.”

The exhibit is there in Jackson until September 11, after which it moves to the Baltimore Museum of Art from the end of October through next January.

Reviewing the exhibit for the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, critic Todd Price says that the Great Migration is not just an event from the past but that the works featured in the exhibit “show how that massive migration continues to shape American culture.”

Before the show closes in September, the museum is hosting a conversation with Isabel Wilkerson herself on the topic. I hope I can get out there to see that. If you find yourself passing through Jackson between now and September, drop in and take a look. I have the feeling you’ll see some striking things.