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A Harlem street scene by Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call

Jacob Lawrence's painting 'Ambulance Call' portrays a Harlem community in 1948, gathered around a medical emergency. The abstract, geometric figures express a sense of grief and unity. The painting reflects the discrimination in healthcare during that era, highlighting the progress of African-Americans in the medical field.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Narrator] We're in the galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a painting by Jacob Lawrence 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 had 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'll get a patterning of their vibrant clothing. It emphasizes that sense of community. And the 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 is a little bit shorter wearing that wonderful straw hat. Some people wearing top hats, some wearing berets, some wearing baseball caps. All of 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, this 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 this vitality 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 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 in thinking about the fact that the attendants here and the paramedic are African-American. It's a 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 knew 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 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 the whole other cycle of life and death that carries on in the background. (upbeat music)