NARRATOR: On hot summer days, life in Harlem moved out onto the pavement. This 1942 painting by Jacob Lawrence shows residents passing time in front of their apartment building. Notice the sign over the store in the basement: “Tombstones.” The stark stone slabs and crosses for sale seem out of place in this lively, colorful setting. A mother rocks her baby on the right. A man stands above, on the steps, chatting up a smiling woman in one of the apartments. We’re watching a life cycle in progress on a city stoop.
Without polemics, Lawrence reminded viewers that death was a visible presence in Harlem. Lawrence’s wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight.
GWENDOLYNKNIGHT: I think Jake just recorded what was there. And his early paintings are of the Harlem scene—what was there—some of it was not pleasant. I guess a great deal of it was not pleasant because we didn’t live in a society that was very pleasant; and he happened to be such a good artist that it was very moving, very touching, and very real.