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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:34

A Harlem street scene by Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a painting by de cab warrants called ambulance call and it dates to 1948 and here we are as we often are with Jacob Lawrence on the streets of Harlem Lawrence has depicted a medical emergency we have two ambulance attendants dressed in blue hauling a patient on a stretcher and to the side we see a paramedic with a stethoscope peeking out of his pocket this may be a street scene in Harlem but we don't see the city or the street itself we just see this community gathering together around the figure on the stretcher the figures are close together and you get a patterning of their vibrant clothing it emphasizes that sense of community and he figures like in so much of Lawrence's work are rendered in a very abstract way bodies form these geometric shapes and yet they're still so expressive when I look for example at the figure in red with the pearls and that wonderful belt the way that she pulls her right arm across her body her head sinks down below her shoulders we have a real sense of grief you also get people from different backgrounds we see in the upper right a gentleman wearing overalls Lawrence does draw our attention to little moments so we have the figure on the right who's got a cigarette in his hand and is stepping forward or the figure in front of him was a little bit shorter wearing that wonderful straw hat some people wearing top hats I'm wearing berets I'm wearing baseball caps all the faces are turned down toward this figure and yet he looks up with his mouth open and it's incredibly poignant the downcast faces of the figures and their somber expressions indicate that this is a very dire situation Harlem in the 1940s this is the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance it's incredible flowering of the arts beginning in the 1920s lasting through the 1940s also the period of the great migration where huge numbers of African Americans migrated from the south to Harlem Harlem became the center of African American culture and there's a vibe Halliday in the streets of Harlem that Lawrence captures so well this is a wonderful opportunity to think about african-americans in the medical field Harlem Hospital was the neighborhood hospital the hospital had been built in 1887 and over time as an increasing number of african-americans moved to the neighborhood the need for greater capacity continued to increase but due to systemic racism the medical care that was necessary for the community always lagged behind it's important to remember that this is a period of intense discrimination in New York City we often think about the problems in the Jim Crow South during this period before the civil rights movement but discrimination was rampant in New York City people of color got second-rate medical care there were very few black doctors and Harlem Hospital didn't get its first black doctor until 1919 and you get a sense of that advancement of african-americans in the medical field and thinking about the fact that the attendance here and the paramedic are African American it's an incredibly moving painting and I just wanted to read this quote from Lawrence himself about Harlem he said it was a very cohesive community you knew people you didn't know their names but you'd pass people on the street and see the faces over and over again it was that kind of community you knew the police you knew the firemen you knew the teachers the people on the street you need the peddlers that's what it was for me and you do get that sense of people who know one another if not intimately they're familiar with one another here in this painting one little sense I do get of the street scene is the cat at the top with some prey in its mouth as though we're both looking down at the ambulance scene but maybe up at a rooftop I wonder if Lawrence meant it as a comment on the sick figure that the cat has come for its prey the way that perhaps death has come for the figure on the stretcher and you have this dramatic human experience playing out in the center and then the sense that life continues on and there's a whole other cycle of life and death that carries on in the background you