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Personal Intersections: Jacob Lawrence, Nicolas Guillen, and Langston Hughes

In the chaotic present that is my life, some things remain constant. Nothing gives me more of a frisson of pleasure than encountering a heretofore hidden connection, revealed through happenstance or chance. Sitting in Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum last month, scanning a randomly selected copy of Black Orpheus - a literary magazine emanating from Nigeria in the mid 60s - I felt that familiar thrum in my spine when I saw the name of one of the contributors: Nicolas Guillen.

Guillen’s contribution to the brief artistic flame that was Black Orpheus was a fluid poetic digression on his name. He builds a sense of frustration and oppression around the loss of name associated with the transAtlantic trade in enslaved humans (see below). Aside from the sheer artistry the thrumming turned into a full-fledged discovery of my own triangular experience.

I traveled to Cuba in July of last year and am returning next month. The first trip celebrated the friendship of Guillen, Cuba’s pre-eminent poet, with Langston Hughes, one of the United States’ literary heroes. Hughes traveled to Cuba for a few weeks in the 1930s. Their encounter - these two dark-skinned artists working in oppressive White environments - led apocryphally to a remark from Hughes to Guillen that the Cuban should focus on the historic and culturally African roots of his country’s musical form, the son, and reflect this in his work. From this interaction, the tale goes, sprang Guillen’s growth into Cuba’s foremost cultural interpreter. In recognition of this epic pairing, our group placed a plaque to both men in the headquarters of the UNEAC - the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers - in the room where Guillen used to work.

My December visit to the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk was to celebrate a different American artist, Jacob Lawrence. My life has seemed to have a bit of a Lawrence moment of late; I have seen his vaunted Migration series several times, both at the Phillips and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His “The American Struggle” series ran at the Phillips in 2021; “Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima” just finished at the Phillips. The Chrysler show was about Lawrence’s connection to the Black Orpheus and two visits he conducted to Nigeria. Throughout his life, Lawrence captured much of the American experience in his inimitable and vivid style with oil, tempera, and watercolor, and it seems everywhere I go I can’t help but see his work.

The Hiroshima show, for example, juxtaposed Lawrence’s vision of the aftermath of that horrific bombing with the work of Hiroshima’s children. After the bombing, the All Souls Unitarian Church in DC (my church) sent supplies to Hiroshima schools; in return, the Japanese children sent beautiful paintings back to the US. These works were unearthed some time ago and have started to percolate into the public’s consciousness - they were displayed proudly amongst the American artist’s work in the Phillips. Meanwhile, the Chrysler show I was visiting had a stunning display of a mature Lawrence’s work based on scenes from Nigeria, juxtaposed with the work of other artists and writers from the African continent.

It was in the Chrysler Museum that I found the poem by Guillen, establishing two legs of a personal triangle - Lawrence and Guillen, Guillen and Cuba and Hughes. But what about the final connection, Lawrence and Hughes? In my ignorance, I wasn’t sure whether they knew each other at all, although I knew they were contemporaries.

Not only did they know each other, I found out, they collaborated on work; at the very least Lawrence illustrated one volume of Hughes’ poetry “One-Way Ticket.” There must be more, of course. This triangle of art and personal experience leads me to want to know that more - more about each artist and the impact of the other giants on their work.

An idea to explore further is how artistic collaborations and exposure change an artist. What happens when the work of giants interacts? How did these great men see each other and their work in the context of the middle part of the last century? In what ways was a White America aware of their work and how has that changed over the last half century? Hidden connections are woven deep into the fabric of my life. In understanding them more completely - their nature, their hiddenness from my perception - they tell me a lot about what I don’t know and what I need to explore. Decades after they passed, Lawrence, Guillen, and Hughes still provoke thought and emotion in me that I need to pursue.

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