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Inspired by the musical storytelling of West Africa’s griots, Jacob Lawrence employed in “The Migration of the Negro” a painted and written narrative to invoke how African-American families “came up” from the South to settle in cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

Suspended above the floor and anchored by almost undetectable wires, Martin Puryear’s 36-foot Ladder for Booker T. Washington seems to float in space as it rises and abruptly narrows at the top. The artistic metaphor of a ladder not easily climbed dovetails with the contradictions in the legacy of slave-turned-educator Booker T. Washington.

Picturing America has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom.
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