James Snead wrote in his essay “Repetition as a Figure in Black Culture” that repetitive words and rhythms have long been a focal component of African music and its American descendants, including blues, spiritual music, and jazz. This same repetition can also be found in African American literature and poetry, serving as a structural and rhythmic device, as seen in the sermon “The Blackness of Blackness” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Lawrence had an interest in jazz music and knew Ellison through Charles Alston, which could explain his use of repetition throughout The Migration Series. He repeats certain words and colors to give the 60-panel opus the lively rhythm of a jazz composition, accelerating the forward momentum of the composition and highlighting the persistence and optimism of those migrating north.
Lawrence alternates between the phrase “large numbers” and “great numbers” when referring to the migrants in Panels 35, 36, 37, 38, 40, and 45. For example, in Panel 35, Lawrence writes, “They left the South in large numbers and they arrived in the North in large numbers.” In Panel 40, he writes, “The migrants arrived in great numbers.” These recurring phrases drive the story forward, like the chugging of a train along the tracks, pressing onward to a more promising future.