The Street by Ann Petry
The Street is a text that’s been dogging my steps this semester; obviously, it’s reading for this class, but a classmate of mine in my senior thesis class is doing an utterly amazing project comparing, essentially, The Street with The Help. The Help, as a phenomenon, utterly passed me by; I had little interest in reading it, and the discussion surrounding the film adaptation and its treatment of black women turned me off completely. I can’t speak to the quality of the book, but yet another text with a white savior doesn’t exactly appeal to me. So The Street started representing the truth behind The Help to me.
The Street opens with Lutie Johnson, a young single mother (technically still married to her husband, who abandoned her), seeking a room on the titular street in Harlem. Eager to get her beloved son, Bub, away from the influence of her father and his floozy of a girlfriend, she takes the only room she can afford, dreaming of a day when she can save enough money to provide Bub with a proper life. But for all Lutie’s attempts to get ahead in the world without selling her soul, she—and the other people living in her building—can’t fight against the societal forces that oppress her.
The Street, while focused on Lutie and her attempts to provide a better life for her son, also goes into the heads of her neighbors. The building’s superintendent, Jones, is sexually fixated on Lutie, although he lives with the quiet Min. There’s a chapter where we finally get into Jones’ head and to see how he frames Lutie—how he frames and rationalizes everything that she does as being centered around him and giving him permission to have sex with her—is honestly repulsive. I’m a spec fic kid; I see a lot of scary things, but nothing can trump the sheer horror of the idea that you are entitled to someone. And this dogs Lutie throughout the book; men feel entitled to her, as a woman and especially as a black woman. Before her marriage broke up (and, in fact, a direct cause), Lutie worked as a maid in Connecticut, where her employers assumed that she was wild about white men, which deeply offends her. But this attitude, this entitlement, is one of the many factors that aids in Lutie’s downward spiral.
My professor refers to Lutie’s character arc in The Street as “negative education”. While the sexism and sexual harrassment Lutie faces at every turn particularly shook me, she, obviously, also faces racism and classism. Petry only dips into the minds of white characters twice—the mind of Mr. Junto, a local businessman whose progressive views on race are nonetheless tainted by the fact he’s fine with using his influence to coerce Lutie into sex, and the mind of Bub’s schoolteacher, Miss Rinner. Cushioned by Jones, Junto is nothing new, but the hatred and illwill Miss Rinner bears towards her pupils is just as earth-shattering as Jones’ sexual entitlement. Lutie does not often run into situations that explicitly discriminate against her, but she is very aware of the institutionalized oppression. In fact, sometimes she thinks she can circumvent it with a little clever thinking (or hard work, that particular part of the American dream having been internalized during her time in Connecticut), rather than critiquing the system itself, which has tragic results.
So yes, The Street is not a happy novel. How can it be, and how can it be now, more than fifty years after its publication date, when the same institutionalized and systemic oppression still apply? Petry had a very specific message here, and one that she gets across beautifully and brutally. I quite like how each chapter is structured, although many, including the first chapter, open with a description of the street that borders on the heavy-handed. But her clear and discreet style is capable of packing quite a punch—the climax of the novel, an emotionally complex thing, is particularly stunning. Obviously, though, I can’t spoil you for that (although I was a bit, by virtue of having encountered it in academia), but I will leave you with this as a taste: “Someone had told Granny once that the butchers in Harlem used embalming fluid on the beef they sold in order to give it a nice fresh color. Lutie didn’t believe it, but like a lot of things she didn’t believe, it cropped up suddenly out of nowhere to leave her wondering and staring at the brilliant scarlet color of the meat” (61).
Bottom line: Ann Petry’s The Street is a beautiful and brutal exploration of the circles of oppression facing Lutie, a young, black, single mother in Harlem in the 1940s, doing all she can to improve her son’s life. Worth a read.
I bought this used book off of Amazon.