Expanding the Black Canon

“She got off the train, thinking that she never felt really human until she reached Harlem and thus got away from the hostility in the eyes of the white women who started at her on the downtown streets and in the subway. Escaped from the openly appraising looks of the white men whose eyes seemed to go through her clothing to her long brown legs.”

– Ann Petry, The Street

I first heard of Ann Petry’s The Street this winter. A single copy arrived among the deliveries at the bookstore where I worked, and I was drawn immediately to the cover and to the synopsis on the back. It advertised The Street as “…the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies” and I was hooked because I’d never heard of the book or of Petry herself. The syllabi of Black literature curricula I’ve studied tend to go from enslaved people’s narratives to the men of the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. Sometimes there’s a little Zora Neale Hurston (always Their Eyes Were Watching God, even though she had short stories and nonfiction essays about Black culture) and Nella Larsen. I think Petry deserves a place on more reading lists. The Street was published in 1946 and it discusses domestic service culture, sexual harassment and assault, inequality in predominantly Black schools, the draft for World War Two, and the effects of social immobility and racism on Black marriage.

The Street is a thriller about a single mother, Lutie, and her son, Bub, trying to make it in Harlem. I mention the genre because I wish I’d known it before I read the book—this is not a heartwarming tale about overcoming the odds. That doesn’t make it any less worth reading. The plot is sometimes sensational, but the entire novel is grounded by very real descriptions of the Black American experience. I fold the bottom corner of pages when I find a sentence I find moving, and there are more than twenty folded corners in my copy. The 2020 edition also has a fantastic introduction by Tayari Jones that discusses the history around the publishing of this book, which I highly recommend reading after you finish to avoid spoilers.

What I find remarkable about The Street is how much time Petry gives to each character. Lutie and her son are the protagonists, and they’re surrounded by sinister characters: a creepy landlord, a madam eager for more recruits, a white nightclub owner and his dashing right-hand man. Even with clear bad guys, The Street gives its questionable characters a chance to tell their own stories. A character who seems unimportant from one perspective, like the live-in girlfriend of Lutie’s landlord, becomes fascinating when she has her own chapter. This also keeps the novel from slipping into anti-Black stereotypes (Black men are lazy and violent, Black women are only good if they’re pure), as some works by people of color do. I most appreciated the perspective on Lutie’s ex-husband Jim, whom she left after she discovered his infidelity. Jim’s character has the potential for stereotypes: he doesn’t stay faithful to his wife, and he doesn’t work. At the end of the novel, though, Lutie reflects on the path laid out for poor Black Americans:

“The women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough for them to support their families. And finally it gets to be too late for some of them. […] The men get out of the habit of working and the houses are old and gloomy and the walls press in.”

Lutie feels like she’s at her lowest point at this point in the novel, and she doesn’t blame Jim for the fact that she’s had to raise her son alone. She blames the racist system that kept him out of work and caused his depression. The Street works slowly on its readers to immerse them in the realities of racism. It wins sympathy with a hardworking single mother and her young son, then explains the motivations behind less charming characters. Once you have been exposed to the breadth of humanity living on a particular street in Harlem in the early 40s, Petry reveals the truth: these characters have stilted futures because racism prevents them from standing up for each other against the white people who have power.

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