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Harlem Renaissance: Jacob Lawrence's Ambulance Call

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One of the twentieth century's most celebrated African-American artists, Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City in 1917 to a couple who had moved from the rural South to find a better life in the North

In this way, Lawrence's family was a part of "The Great Migration," a period in the earliest decades of the last century when more than a quarter million African-Americans left their rural southern state homes to move to more free-thinking urban centers such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. This led to a cultural and intellectual heyday given the term "the Harlem Renaissance."

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Harlem was developed for the Whites but because too many buildings were constructed, blacks were able to live in Harlem. Blacks in the South were treated badly; lynching, segregation, created an influx of Blacks to the north and one of their main city of choice was Harlem. During this time there were many African American Writers who wrote about their culture and their oppression. Claude McKay was the first to publish, with his sonnet “If we Must Die,” published in 1919; this poem was not meant to be a racial poem but Blacks saw it that way. In 1922, James Weldon Johnson publishes his anthology of verse, Book of American Negro Poetry, In his writing he addresses the dialect verse that black poets often used and encourages them to express themselves more with imagery and idioms through “the peculiar turn of thought, and the distinctive humor of pathos of African Americans that could nevertheless also give voice to ‘the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations’ and the ‘widest range of subject and the widest scope of the Harlem Renaissance treatment.” Other renowned writers of The Harlem Renaissance were Langston Hughes whose play “Mulatto,” runs the longest on Broadway until Larraine Hansberry “Raisin in the Sun.” Many of the Harlem writers’ work are still being read as Literature throughout the country. Whether or not the writers of The Harlem Renaissance withstood time in Literature, they had one common denominator, bringing an end to inequality. Blacks in America were not given the equality that they were promised with the abolition of slavery and self-expression was an idea that they were afraid to utilize because the whites never let them forget their assumed-inferiorly. The movement of The Harlem Renaissance gave writers the courage and the opportunity to write about the atrocities that blacks still suffer. They wrote about the culture of the African American people and the social norms that affect them

The movement woke up the blacks and gave them the bravery to fight to for their rights; it also woke up the whites to the creativity of the black people; more than that it scared them to reevaluate their attitude towards blacks. Whereas The Harlem Renaissance gives blacks a voice, it was the conscience of the whites.

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In Dreams, many motifs and racial symbols synthesize in order to portray it as a nightmare that the African Americans have to get over. This nightmare is first embodied through the devilish figures framed in the rectangles formed by the brass bars of the bed. The brass bars act like a prison

The artist fills this piece with dark and tragic symbols so as to remind the viewers about the tragic past of his people. The devil-ish figures show that the artist feels very strongly about the cruelties of slavery and racism. A religious undertone to this visual nightmare is clear from the only item which crosses into our visual space – a crucifix. The crucifix hangs on the central bedpost, and appears to be directly in between the couple as they physically touch (Diamond, Anna, 2017). It shows that albeit the devils seem to be harassing the couple, they have faith that god will help them overcome it. Furthermore, Lawrence uses a palette of browns, bright red, yellow-orange, black, white, and blue, in order to create his figures as non-naturalistic color blocks with their limbs elongated, their torsos concealed beneath blocky clothing, and their facial features simplified to eyes and mere sad outlines of a nose and mouth. It combines the simplicity of African American Art with modern elements such as cubism. These compositional decisions are applied by the artist in order to eliminate extraneous background details that would take away from the poignant emotions of the narrative. The Artist’s most significant purpose behind creating this piece was to clear misconceptions about the heritage, and show the African Americans’ unity and zealousbess towards their race (Driskell, David C., 1994). Dreams by Jacob Lawrence strategically utilizes the principles of art, as well as themes of African American past, in order to inform the rest of the world about the uniqueness of the African-American culture, and at the same time inspire the African Americans to move forward from their horrendous past in an enlightened manner.

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Summing up, surrounding this trio is a densely packed crowd of spectators, whose downcast eyes and sad expressions suggest that they are not anonymous onlookers but rather a close-knit community of neighbors, friends, and family. Ambulance Call exemplifies Lawrence’s melding of traditional narrative subjects and the visual language of modernism. The schematically rendered figures wear bright, monochromatic clothing. The artist distributed passages of red, blue, yellow, green, and black throughout the picture in a lively, rhythmic pattern.

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Diamond, Anna. “Why the Works of Visionary Artist Jacob Lawrence Still Resonate a Century After His Birth.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Sept. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-works-visionary-artist-jacob-lawr

Driskell, David C., et al. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Studio Museum in Harlem, 1994.

Harlem Renaissance.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 424-426. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3045300994/GVRL?u=powa9245&sid=GVRL&xid=833edb05. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

“Harlem Renaissance.” Literary Movements for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Literary Movements, edited by Ira Mark Milne, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2009, pp. 335-373.

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