IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jacob Lawrence painted Black America for Black people — not the white gaze

This is a journey that takes us on a winding path through history and into an orbit of known and largely unknown figures who helped shape Black identity in America.
Image: Pedestrians on a summer day in Harlem, N.Y., in 1935.
Pedestrians on a summer day in Harlem, N.Y., in 1935.Bettmann Archive / Getty Images file

I was around 8 years old the first time I can remember seeing Jacob Lawrence's work. My mother had a print of his, "The Lovers," hanging on her bedroom wall. The colors are what I remember most. The yellow walls. The red end table. The green sofa with the bright blue record player sitting on top. And two dark, beautifully brown lovers entangled in each other's arms. I couldn't walk by her room without slowing to take a peek.

Over the years I learned to spot Lawrence's work on sight. His color palette. His subjects. His use of angles and sight lines and all the energy conjured in his brushstrokes. But there's also something so accessible about his work.

Over the years I learned to spot Lawrence’s work on sight. His color palette. His subjects. His use of angles and sight lines and all the energy conjured in his brush strokes.

I hadn't seen his paintings hanging behind velvet rope in some sterile old museum where people who look like us are often an afterthought. I saw inexpensive reprints hanging on the walls of working-class Black families' homes and on calendars you might get for Christmas and in coffee table books you'd find at a neighborhood Black bookstore.

Jacob Lawrence felt like ours. I'd grow to not just appreciate but also understand what I think Lawrence was after. He wanted us to know that we were seen. There was such familiarity in so many of his pieces. He made ordinary Black builders and Black families seem extraordinary in the very being. He made our Black heroes look something just like us.

Few artists dead or alive have captured the essence of Blackness in America quite like Lawrence. It's not just that his subjects were mostly Black or how deftly he used a brush and canvas to illustrate the Black experience in America, although both of those things are true. His power was in creating a visual language that helped shape how America saw Black people and how Black people saw themselves.

He rose to acclaim first in Harlem, New York, the Black mecca. His patrons were teachers and laborers and neighbors — the salt of Black New York. This was in the late 1930s into the early '40s, years before what many consider the modern civil rights era. Black folks were still being lynched across America, and images of Black people in the arts, the media and pop culture were largely derogatory or missing altogether.

Jacob Lawrence in 1941.Library of Congress

But Lawrence centered Black life in a way that bucked the impulse of many of his African American contemporaries who created a diminished kind of Black art that was more appeasing to the white gaze.

He famously illustrated the critically acclaimed, 60-piece series called "The Migration" in 1940, which depicted the mass movement of millions of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities during a stretch of the early to the mid-20th century.

The exodus is known as The Great Migration. The migrants left the violence of Southern soil for the hope of better days and opportunities in the North, pouring into cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. These cities, like their new transplanted inhabitants, would forever be changed. From politics to law, arts to entertainment, America was shifting under the feet of Black Americans.

And Lawrence not only captured this moment, but he also centered the Black experience in telling the broader American experience.

As I got older and my collection of books and art and ephemera grew in quantity and value, I dreamed of one day getting my hands on an original Lawrence print. While there was something accessible about the images he created, which were almost ubiquities in certain Black spaces, original signed and numbered prints were much more elusive and more valuable. I'd keep my eyes peeled at antique shops and art houses and in the online auctions I'm kind of addicted to.

And then one day not long ago, I finally found it. I found my Lawrence.

"Schomburg Library 1986" by Jacob Lawrence.Jacob Lawrence

It was being sold at auction at a New York auction house. It was beautiful with that palette and those strokes and angles that I'd fallen in love with decades ago. It was a signed and numbered print, #181 out of 200, of Lawrence's 1986 "Schomburg Library." I'd seen this image dozens of times. It shows an ordinary day at the famed Schomburg Library at Harlem's 135th Street. The place is now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. But long before the place rose to fame as a pre-eminent research institution, it was the center of social and academic life in Harlem. And Lawrence spent much of his youth devouring books there. Later, as a young artist, he'd research American history there for his pieces. As a young journalist I'd also spent many hours there doing research for stories and attending book readings and talks. I felt moved and connected to this scene of library-goers poring over books, some with arms filled and bursting with them, others focused, turning pages. There's a palpable energy in the piece.

The day of the auction, I watched bid after bid rattle off until I'd finally won! Of course, I wanted this particular piece because it spoke to me in so many ways. But there was something more about my print, something I'd rarely ever seen. It was hand numbered and signed, but there was also a dedication.

It reads: "To Abram Hill."

Who was Abram Hill? And what is his connection to Lawrence?

I went from exhilaration at the prospect of owning a piece of history to being enthralled in the mystery and the stories this specific print held. Abram Hill is a legend in his own right. I'll tell y'all more about him later.

All of this is just the beginning of a journey that I'd like to share with you all. It's a journey that takes us on a winding path through history, through Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance and into an orbit of known and largely unknown figures who helped shape Black identity in America. And it all begins with Jacob Lawrence and the "Schomburg Library."

As we settle into Black History Month, we'll be telling this story here and on my "Into America" podcast, with a four-episode series spread over four weeks. We're calling it "Harlem on My Mind." And the first episode lands today. So search for "Into America" wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe.

Or you can listen here. Stay tuned.