When renowned Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence completed his forty-one panels telling the story of the Haitian Revolution and the struggle of its most famous leader, Toussaint Louverture, he crafted a visual representation of a history to African Americans that was deep and rich but cast aside in racist mainstream histories. Lawrence, himself, commented on the importance of an honest telling of history, asserting “I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in public schools…I don’t see how a history of the United States, can be written honestly without the Negro.”1
In fact, Lawrence and his contemporaries were giving African Americans a voice through the incredible talent that called out to the world during the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, singers such Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and artists such as Jacob Lawrence were, indeed, giving a voice to a people long stifled and silenced due to a world of suppression and slavery. There was a long and rich tradition in African-American communities discussing Haitian Revolution and the fate of Haiti.2
Lawrence first heard the story of Louverture as a young man at the Harlem YMCA3 and was so captivated by the story of the slave turned international hero, that he completed the narrative of the Haitian struggle in his first major work. I first fell in love with the Lawrence panels when I stumbled upon them in an art exhibit in West Palm Beach, when I was there for a magnet schools symposium in 2005. The Lawrence exhibit was a fascinating display of how art can shed light on history and how history can come to life through art.
Through his depiction of Louverture, Lawrence was telling an overlooked history, a suppressed history that needed to be told honestly. As with other artists, musicians and writers during the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence was lending his talent and giving voice to a people who had not been heard up to that point. While the Louverture panels will be the focus of my unit, Lawrence’s retelling of others in The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1938, (forty panels), The Life of Harriet Tubman, 1939, (thirty one panels), The Migration of the Negro, 1940 – 41, (sixty panels), The Life of John Brown, 1941 (22 panels) will also be utilized as students use Lawrence’s ideas and work to tell other histories that might otherwise be overlooked.