By Chet Yarbrough
By: Ann Petry
Narrated by Shayna Small
Ann Petry (1908-1997, American author and journalist.)
This was Ann Petry’s first novel. It was published in 1946. It was renewed in 1947, republished in 1958, 1988, 1985–now rendered by Audiobooks in 2013. Petry became the first African-American woman to sell more than 1,000,000 copies. Petry offers a vivid picture of a Black woman’s experience in America.
Petry pictures Harlem as a poor family’s neighborhood where a rich white man dominates lives of a largely Black American ghetto. This is not today’s Harlem, but it is a precursor to what plagues 21st century America.
East Harlem in the 1940 s.
Petry’s story is of a young, extraordinarily beautiful, Black woman driven to live in a Harlem tenement.
Lutie Johnson is separated from her husband and compelled by poverty to rent a squalid room on the top floor of an apartment building. She has a high school education and a minimum wage job that barely supports herself and her young son, Bub. The tenement is owned by a white man who owns the building and a nearby casino.
A Black Madam works for the owner and pimps young women to make a living that enriches the owner of the building while creating income for herself. The tenement has a Black superintendent who lives in the basement and manages the building for the white owner.
Petry tells a story that explains how a decent woman can be driven to commit murder, abandon her child, and perpetuate a family’s poverty.
Petry explains how the roots of a family decay and how that decay fertilizes future generations of poverty-stricken families.
Before Harlem, Lutie works as a maid for a rich white family outside the city. The work pays relatively well but it separates Lutie from her husband because of the growing demands of the white family. Lutie stays at their house for longer periods of time.
Lutie and her husband’s love wither when he cannot find a job. Her husband feels diminished by his inability to support the family. The husband’s idle time leads to an affair that breaks his bond with Lutie and their young son. Lutie leaves, with her son, to start a new life in Harlem.
Lutie does not divorce her husband because of its legal cost. She wonders if she is not the reason for their break-up. It relegates her to legal single-hood if she wishes to marry in the future. She realizes the circumstance of poverty had more to do with there break-up then any other single cause. Her husband’s lack of job prospects, and their separation irreparably damaged their affection for each other.
Petry notes how Lutie grows to despise white people because of presumptions white people make of non-white people. Lutie naturally resents men’s presumption that she is willing to have sex with any white man that asks. Petry notes Lutie’s domestic employer’s condescension when other white people are nearby.
Petry offers a side story of a white teacher in Harlem who treats her students poorly. She has a fear of non-white students.
The students, in turn, ridicule the white teacher for her attitude toward them. It is a mutual distrust based on the color of one’s skin, not the content of their character.
As Lutie reviews her new circumstance, the only job she can find offers barely enough income to afford rent, utilities, and food for the two of them. To compound Lutie’s trouble she is subjected to the leering interests of the building superintendent and the white owner of the building. She refuses their advances but is drawn into a crisis, a crises manufactured by the sexually aroused superintendent.
After unsuccessfully trying to rape Lutie, the superintendent concocts a plan to get back at her by getting her son arrested. Her son is recruited by the superintendent to steal mail from adjacent tenements. He convinces the young boy that the police want his help to find a criminal in the neighborhood. The boy is caught by post office authorities and taken into custody.
Lutie knows nothing about the super’s lie and is faced with the belief that she needs a lawyer to get her son out of juvenile detention. There appears to be no effort by the police to investigate beyond the arrest of Lutie’s son.
Lutie does not have the $200 needed to hire a lawyer. She turns to a Black employee of the white owner. The employee explains that if she is “nice” to the white man (implying she would have sex with the owner) she can get the $200 she needs. She refuses.
The employee, having failed to convince Lutie to be “nice” to his employer, decides and tries to rape her. She murders him out of defense and rage. Lutie has reached her breaking point. She buys a ticket to Chicago, leaving her young son with the State.
“The Street” is a Black woman’s story of the 1940 s, but it is every woman’s story in a culture that discounts equality of opportunity and often treats women as property.
The dimensions of Ann Petry’s 1940’s Harlem story are widened by the modern adventures of the Marvel hero Luke Cage.
“The Street” shows being a woman diminishes opportunity in America. Ann Petry shows being black in America magnifies that inequality.