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“Growth” is a loose term. People use the word to describe outcomes that are more favorable than those in the past, but who chooses what is favorable for a whole nation? Of course, those in power. Growth is like our fingerprints — unique to every person. What is growth for one person may be the fall of everything another stands for. The question of who should have power in society and who should not have it has been asked continually in history. This same question has led to war, violence, and ultimately growth, at least from my perspective. Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series resonates with my past because the paintings can be interpreted as a representation of universal human challenges. Although they are all great pieces of art, panel 17 struck me most.
On the left, Alexander Hamilton stands with his head bowed to the ground, clutching his fatal gunshot wound, while Aaron Burr stands hidden in the shadows; a plant protrudes from a crack in the ground. With this painting Lawrence opened a conversation about the struggle for power in American history. From the civil rights movement to the Stonewall riots, power has always been one of the main topics in our country’s discourse. Burr and Hamilton’s duel demonstrates just how important power is: Burr was willing to kill his rival and ultimately end his own political career because he opposed him. Hamilton even went so far as to risk his life so that Burr wouldn’t get into office, although even he, in his final will, acknowledged how senseless that was. This was not the last time America would see such a battle.
Other figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marsha P. Johnson, would walk directly into danger to assert their power. Lawrence captured the continuity and nuance of this ongoing clash by depicting one of the most famous and early struggles for power in America. The only outlier in this painting, however, is the plant that grows out of the earth. Why would Lawrence add a symbol of life and growth in a painting that is mainly about death and struggle? In a painting, every single aspect and brushstroke is intentional, from size to color choice. The scene of Hamilton and Burr seems juxtaposed to the plants and trees in the background and foreground. This can be seen in the differing color choice between the background and foreground; the men are very dark and intense, while the plants are lighter and calmer. It’s almost as if they were meant to attract more attention than Hamilton and Burr. Perhaps they were?
The struggle for power in America comes about through individual activism and protest, which influence movements and lead to change. Jacob Lawrence provides a means to look at America’s history critically, without considering race, ethnicity, or gender. The transfer of power in America has often occurred through violence and bloodshed; Lawrence’s choice of a duel to comment about this clash is both nuanced and necessary.
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