It is such an honor to share in this letter my connection to the artist Jacob Lawrence, whom I have grown to call “Uncle Jake” following the opening of his American Struggle exhibition. For me, “Uncle” is as a term of endearment and acknowledgement of his contributions to not only the American experience, but also the contributions to the African American experience in this United States of America, of which I am a proud citizen. Unfortunately, the artist died before I ever got the chance to meet or learn of him. I chose to write this letter to thank him, to share my own personal experience, and reaffirm that we are all a part of this American Struggle.
Detail of Jacob Lawrence, Massacre in Boston, Panel 2, 1954, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
Dear Mr. Lawrence,
If this were 15 years ago, I would have said that I hate art. I would have said that museums are cold, boring places and were no place for a young black girl like me.
I would ask “why is there a stool in the middle of the floor with a bicycle wheel in it, in this big fancy art gallery and someone decided to call it art?” Not only does it look weird but, the weirdest part is that it is worth almost $3 million. Fifteen years ago this young black girl was lost, and it wasn't until I saw paintings from your Migration series at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that I realized I could grow to love and appreciate art.
I realized there were artists in the world that cared about me and saw beauty in my blackness. Your exhibition turned this confused little black girl into a grown, educated woman who appreciates art. It set me on a path to find more black artists and art that resonate with my existence.
When I came across your work, I was in graduate school working towards my master’s degree in social work with a special focus on community organizing, planning and development. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to help communities of color, in particular the community of Harlem, where my family was from and still lived. It is where my father was born and raised, where he was the first of his siblings to break the cycle of poverty all while surviving the drug epidemic that plagued and devastated the neighborhood. This was the same Harlem that birthed the Harlem Renaissance. The same Harlem where at the age of 13 you moved from Atlantic City with your mother and two younger siblings after your parents split up. This is the same Harlem where you discovered your passion for art by observing the activity and rhythms of the streets and while in after-school community workshops at Utopia House and later at the Harlem Art Workshop.
Artist Jacob Lawrence with panels 26 and 27 from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. © Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.
This was the same Harlem where I lived as I pursued my graduate degree. On this journey of pursuing my passion for helping communities, I encountered an unexplainable internal struggle and conflict like no other. Being one of a small percentage of black students in my program, I quickly found that while my white colleagues had big hearts and wanted to help impoverished communities like I did, I found they voluntarily elected me to be the spokesperson for all black people on Earth. I had to bank their burdens of guilt and shame which became my burdens. I had to hear questions like: How can I not be racist? Is this racist? Is that racist? Help me understand the black experience.
Felicia reading during the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle opening day listening tour. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
They all often left me so withdrawn I began to develop a numbness to my own existence. But that day when my colleagues dragged me to the museum and I saw your exhibition, I felt feelings of appreciation, accomplishment and pride.
When I saw the panel where black folks loaded trains to head to Chicago, New York and St. Louis, I felt like I saw my own family on a path to upward movement. It was a reminder of my greatness. A reminder of how I not only came from struggle but also hope and purpose. My family never really spoke about our history of the great migration. But I do know my paternal grandmother was born near Orangeburg, South Carolina and moved to Harlem. I do know my roots are from the South although no written or verbal history was ever shared. Your Migration series became part of my own personal great migration toward living in my truth and being my authentic self.
Felicia alongside Uncle Jake. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
At PEM, I stand in front of Panel 13 of your American Struggle series and I am reminded that through the battles of my life, many of which I still face now, I am all the stronger because of them. Just last month I was encountered by a degrading racial label, not due to pure racism but rather ignorance in a professional setting. I struggle daily with the dichotomy of being both black and a woman and how my identity informs how others treat me and how I interact with them. Being both black and woman has left me in places where I had to work twice as hard as my counterparts. I have found myself at the age of 35 seeking therapy. It brought me such comfort to hear that you shared your experience with depression and being hospitalized through your painting aptly named Depression. But the external and internal struggles have finally come to a head.
There is no sword for me to turn over, but it is time for our country to be reminded of our history.
Jacob Lawrence, Victory and Defeat, Panel 13, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
While I stand here at Panel 13 of your series, I am reminded of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.
Felicia with Panel 13 during a listening tour. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
I am reminded of my father, being one of 13 children and the first to make it out of poverty, and I am reminded of a young Jake at the age 13 who, temporarily spent time in foster care, and found his passion in art and sharing it with the world.
Uncle Jake, I thank you for your impassioned observation and storytelling art that is raw in artistic creativity that documents both the African American experience as well as the larger human struggle for freedom and social justice.
Jacob Lawrence, . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? — Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
With love, light and adoration,
P.S. Continue to rest in peace and I hope God has given you all the colors of life with which to paint.
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Felicia Pierce serves as Chief Program Officer at Salem-based North Shore Community Development Coalition where she is responsible for overseeing all community programs which include community engagement, family stability assistance, small business engagement and youth programming.
Felicia and her husband Milton moved to the North Shore five years ago from New York and have enjoyed being residents of Lynn. During her free time Felicia enjoys serving at her church, making jewelry, karaoke and spending time with her husband and two cats Gizmo and Missy.