Having finished Ann Petry’s The Street yesterday, it makes for a good coincidence that I am trying to gather my thoughts on it on Mother’s Day. The Street is a provocative novel that explores the intersection between poverty, racism, sexism and human frailty. Set in Harlem in 1944, it explores the interconnecting layers of these topics through various characters that are developed with sensitivity and realness. All of these characters are shaped by living in and around 116th Street in Harlem. A street that defines the confinement and limitations that the black body had been (some will say, still is) structurally designed to be held down with.
Lutie Johnson, its primary protagonist is a single black woman who believed in the American dream. A dream that she eavesdropped off conversations of the white family that she worked for as a domestic staff. The American dream says that if you worked hard enough and did not give up, you will emerge successful and wealthy. Lutie naively believed this dream and when her marriage breaks down due to the peculiarities of working far from home as a domestic servant for white families, she decides to move to Harlem with her 8-year-old son, Bud, in pursuit of the liberating force of the American dream. What she did not factor in was that the system had created a place for her. A place that was reductive and restrictive – woman, black, poor and single. Characteristics that marked her out to be excluded from the American dream. The claustrophobic and almost unlivable streets like 116th Street reproduced the walls and barriers that the system placed on her and her son, Bud.
Being up against racism, sexism and poverty is an incredible triple combo to have as limiting factors and Lutie found out that the American dream is not a potent enough force against such an oppressive combination. Being poor meant you could not live in a better place than 116th Street, being black meant your options were further limited in terms of labour and being a single woman meant you were an unwilling pawn which men used to express their power, you were a means of expression for men who needed to validate their toxic masculinity. In order to keep the American dream alive (not achieve it, just to keep the hope of achieving it alive), Lutie Johnson is forced to surrender her parenting role to the street. In raising the child viciously, the next generation is trapped by the walls (both real and imagined) that the streets of Harlem represent.
The Street is a sad and depressing tale that addresses structural issues of inequality that are still not adequately addressed 76 years after Ann Petry wrote this book. The ending will be unsatisfying to some readers but that endeared it to me even more. There is still no happy ending to issues that The Street raised, so why should a fictional work addressing these issues end happily? There were too many loose ends at the end but I see that as an indication that the issues which The Street explores have no tidy conclusion even in real life. Most remain unresolved, full of ambiguity and brokenness remains unhealed even in the end. My only grouse with the plot is that I felt the men got off lightly. If Jim had stepped up some more, Lutie and Bob would not have been at the mercies of the system that was stacked against them from the start. Why did it have to be the woman’s role to seek a domestic servant’s job far from home? What stopped Jim from seeking a job as a butler or domestic servant? In all, The street was an excellent read and a true classic (the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies) which should be more widely read and evoke introspective conversations.