Lewis was born and raised in Harlem to Bermudan immigrant parents. Growing up there in the 1910s and ’20s, his was among a small number of black families in the neighborhood, which was also populated by Jewish, Irish, and Italian communities. By the age of nine, he had developed a keen awareness of racial inequality, as well as a desire to be an artist. His career began in the 1930s, when he used the style of
to convey both the struggles and everyday lives of black people, shaped not only by racism but also by the Great Depression. These paintings begin the chronologically and thematically arranged exhibition at PAFA, which progresses through compositions inspired by jazz, the rhythms of the city and nature, parades, the Civil Rights Movement, and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.