“Any Leadership Would Have to Be the Type of Frederick Douglass”

Black History, Black Heroism, and Black Resistance in Jacob Lawrence’s Frederick Douglass Series (1938–1939)


  • Celeste-Marie Bernier




The inspiration for twentieth-century activist-artist Jacob Lawrence’s multipart narrative series Frederick Douglass (1938–1939), a thirty-two-panel work he painted while he was living in Harlem, emerged from his exposure to the stories of “strong, daring and heroic black heroes and heroines.” Whereas it had been an act of philosophical and political liberation for Frederick Douglass to focus on the “multitudinous” possibilities of textual experimentation and visual reimagining when it came to his own face and body, let alone his life story and his intellectual and moral power as an orator and author, for social justice artists such as Jacob Lawrence who were building new languages of liberation from Douglass’s activism and authorship, it was imperative that he become a point of origin, a Founding Father in a Black revolutionary tradition, and a steadying compass point for acts of radicalism, reform, and resistance in the African Atlantic world.