Street by Ann Petry
Racism and Prejudice in Ann Petry's the Street
Ann Petry's novel the Street is the story of the tribulations suffered by a black, young woman during her life in and out of Harlem, in the early nineteen forties. As a black woman, Lutie Johnson is beset with both racial and gender discrimination and with sexual abuse from both white and black men. Thus, her struggle to maintain a decent life and provide for her child as a single mother is ultimately defeated by the abuse she encounters at every step of the way. From the intelligent, well-educated, disciplined and attractive woman she is at the beginning of the novel, she transformed in a murderer and a mother who abandons her child in the end. The novel also has a noticeable tinge of the Gothic, both in the descriptions of the grim and slummy Harlem and in the descriptions of Lutie's vivid fantasies and nightmares. Thus, Petry demonstrates how the environment can take control of somebody's life and become as a terrible predicament for a certain character. The title of the novel, "The Street," emphasizing the environment in which Lutie has to live, also hints that a black woman living in Harlem in the forties was condemned from beforehand to a life filled with frustrations, abuse and failure.
Thus, the most important aspect to be followed in the novel is certainly Lutie's trajectory and her development throughout the book. There is an emphasis on the fact that, due to her double disadvantage of being black and also a woman at the same time, Lutie does not stand a chance in front of American society at that time. The end of the novel articulates this idea. Just before she leaves, Lutie abandons Bub in the children's shelter where he had been put by the police, and buys a one-way ticket. The one way ticket serves a very revealing metaphor in the text, implying that Lutie was doomed even from her birth because of her condition as a black woman: "Yes, a one-way ticket. I've had one since the day I was born."(Petry, 430) the tragedy of her life is furthermore enhanced by her qualities as a human being. Thus, she is intelligent, brave, hard working and very thrift. Also, she is optimistic and endeavors to keep up her spirits in front of the numberless adversities that cross her path. When her husband leaves her because of his own frustrations of not being able to provide for the family, she takes her young son with her and moves in with her father. She proves therefore enough strength to be independent and take her life in her own hands. Considering the time and place in which she lived, this proves great courage on her side. Moreover, the comparison with Min, another black woman who lives in the same building with Lutie in Harlem, emphasizes Lutie's strength. Afraid to be on her own and conscious of the difficulties she would have if she tried to pay the rent on herself, Min accepts the disparaging and degrading treatment that her boyfriend Jones applies to her. By comparison, Lutie is stronger in the beginning and much more courageous. Furthermore, when she feels her father's girlfriend has a bad influence on her son, she leaves the household and decides to try to live on her own. Her character and her will to survive and succeed are certainly very strong: "I'm young and strong, there isn't anything I can't do."(Petry, 63) However, her strength does not help her in her way. Gradually, all her hopes are baffled and the disappointments flow on her way, one after the other. Lutie's life story is thus one of continuous despair and frustration, like that of any colored woman living in Harlem: "A story of despair, of loneliness, of frustration. It was a story that all of them knew by heart and had always known because they had learned it soon after they were born and would go on adding to it until the day they died.."(Petry, 148) in spite of her determination, Lutie loses the battle against her own destiny.
The story of Lutie's life in Harlem is very telling for the condition of the black woman towards the middle of the twentieth century. Although allegedly free, the black women were constrained to suffer from the discrimination of the white people who considered them to be less than human: "Burly Negro...Threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke."(Petry, 199) All through the book, the black people are compared to animals, pointing thus to the powerful racial prejudice against them. Also, they were allowed to work but no one of Lutie's condition could get more than a menial job and therefore live in direst conditions. Aware of all the odds that were against her, Lutie tries to fight her own condition and live a better life. When she surprises Bub with a shoe-shining box, trying to earn a little extra money, she punishes him and tries to explain that he shouldn't follow the white men's opinion and try to do such a debasing job: "White people seem to think that's the only kind of work they're fit to do. The hard work. The dirty work. The work that pays the least."(Petry, 70) Thus, because she cannot possibly get a better job and a better salary, Lutie is forced to live on a street where criminality is imminent at every step. In such conditions, all her attempts to live cleanly are thwarted and she ends up as a criminal herself, even if it is in self-defense. Petry's book thus offers a grim view of the racism that was thriving at that time in America. In spite of their apparent freedom, the black people were condemned to a life of frustration of shame, due to the racial prejudice of the society. They were thus forced to live in a filthy, contaminated environment and could not escape their condition.
But the most violent abuse that Lutie meets with is gender discrimination and sexual aggression from both white and black men. Having an attracting figure, she is haunted in turn by all the men that come her way. In her condition, she is supposed to want to win extra money by paying sexual services to "nice white gentlemen": "If you live on this damn street you're supposed to want to earn a little extra money sleeping around nights. With nice white gentlemen."(Petry, 86) Moreover, the black men in her entourage also abuse Lutie, showing nothing more than an animal interest in her as a woman. Petry thus portrays the image of the woman as a sexual object, fit for nothing more than the fulfillment of carnal desire. None of the men that Lutie meets respects her in any way. She is abused by Jones, the superintendent of the building she lives in, by Boots, by Junto, by the music teacher that wants to give her lessons in exchange of sexual favors and so on. Thus, once more, Lutie is the victim of prejudice: she is seen and treated by the men around her as an animal, an object of sexual desire. As she observes, what was wrong was the fact that many of the black women were forced to work hard for just a little sum of money, while their men were idle: "That's what's wrong. We don't have time enough or money enough to live like other people because the women have to work until they become drudges and the men stand by idle."(Petry, 186) the position of the black women was thus compromised by racial and gender discrimination, which did not allow them to lead a decent life. Despite Lutie's qualities and her character, she is forced to live like an animal. The social environment of Harlem or 'the street' contaminate her, and finally defeat her.
The other important female character in the novel is Min, Jones' girlfriend. At first, she proves to be less strong than Lutie, as she shows her dependence on Jones and her fear of being independent. Towards the end however, she is finally fed up with Jones' degrading behavior towards him, and she manages to leave him realizing that her dignity is worth more than having somebody else paying the rent for her: "Funny how she got to believe that not having to pay rent was so important, and it really wasn't. Having room to breathe in meant much more."(Petry, 162)
Although her fate remains uncertain, it is unlikely that she might succeed, given Lutie's case. Thus, Petry's novel is a complex and revealing evaluation of the situation of the black woman in the mid-twentieth century America. In spite of having some rights and some freedom, the black women suffered from both racial and gender discrimination. The prejudice they were held in by society did not allow them to surpass their condition and lead a good or at least…