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  Visions of Harlem
Harlem is the queen of black belts, drawing Afroamericans together into a vast humming hive. They have swarmed from different states, from the islands of the Caribbean and from Africa. And they are still coming in spite of the grim misery that lurks behind the inviting facades. Over-crowded tenements, the harsh Northern climate and un-employment do not daunt them. Harlem remains the magnet.
Claude McKay1

Throughout the Great Migration, one of the main destinations was Harlem, New York. Covering less than two square miles, this area was home for more than a quarter million African-American migrants.

  This is Harlem, 1943. Gouache on paper, 15 3/8 x 22 11/16 in. (39.1 x 57.6 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.; gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966
Artwork © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation

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Harlem abounded with African ancestral traditions, philosophies, culture, and religion, practiced and carried North by the newly arrived black migrants. However, life was very different in Harlem for migrants accustomed to rural life styles. Instead of living in houses on a farm, black migrants now lived in small apartments or vertically designed, densely compacted tenements. The slower pace of rural life was replaced by the accelerated speed of developing urban centers. The sounds of nature were replaced by the sounds of people, traffic, radios, and modern machines moving across concrete sidewalks and cobblestone streets and overhead on elevated trains.

Jacob Lawrence witnessed the innovative and improvised lifestyles created by the convergence of the  Great Migration, the  Depression, the  Jazz Age, and the  Harlem Renaissance. Inspired by the Harlem community's interest in the stories of its heritage, Lawrence became the storyteller or visual  griot of the neighborhood.

Recalling the impact of the sights and sounds of Harlem when he first arrived there in 1930, Lawrence referred to the "endlessly fascinating patterns" of "cast-iron fire escapes and their shadows created across the brick walls." He remarked on the "variegated colors and shapes of pieces of laundry on lines stretched across the back yards…the patterns of letters on the huge billboards and the electric signs."2 Ordinary everyday tasks, events, and routines sparked Lawrence's imagination. He used what he saw around him to document the people, visual culture, movement, color, sounds, and spirit of the community.

Throughout his career, Jacob Lawrence emphasized the crucial role that the black community of Harlem played in his development as a young man and as an artist. Of special significance was his exposure to leading black intellectuals and artists of the post-Harlem Renaissance, such as  Aaron Douglas,  Ralph Ellison,  Langston Hughes,  Alain Locke, and  Richard Wright, each of whom represented different, often opposing points of view about the position of blacks in American society and the responsibility of artists to address this topic in their work. In his images of Harlem, Lawrence painted his vision of poverty, crime, racial tensions, and police brutality based on his experience of urban life around him. He also portrayed a vibrant, thriving community and the aspirations of its people.

1. Leslie King-Hammond, "Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown, Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-class Community," in Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle Dubois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), pp. 68-69.

2. Lowery Stokes Sims, "The Structure of Narrative, Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings, 1946-1998," in Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle Dubois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), p. 202.

©2002 Whitney Museum of American Art