The Street, The Narrows
Edited by Farah Jasmine Griffin
The Library of America 2019
The Library of America has published two mind-boggling novels written by African-American Ann Petry, mostly obscure in the white-dominated 1940s-50s. Her acute observation and insight into human consciousness and foundations of racism in white-mainstream USA is profoundly provocative.
Her first novel, “The Street,” published in 1946, was the first by an African American woman to sell more than one million copies. She masterfully portrays black lives in Harlem and articulates the chasm that separates them from the prevailing order. It’s told through the eyes of Lutie Johnson, whose ambition is to give eight-year-old son Bud a chance to become educated, and safe from harm.
Petry dissects Lutie’s innermost fears as she confronts obstacles in a neighborhood where men can’t get hired and children are left unsupervised by working mothers. When she witnesses a white killing of a young black who stole bread from a bakery, she surmises that whites fail to see the “Negro” as an individual, but rather as “a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.”
Lutie passes her civil service test, but barely earns enough to pay rent for a dilapidated apartment. She has two options: To become the mistress of a white man, Junto, who owns clubs, casinos and most apartments in Harlem, or struggle to maintain her dignity, a choice that puts her and her son in peril.
Petry’s second novel, “The Narrows,” released in 1953, and like her first novel, focuses on one neighborhood, an industrial waterfront in Monmouth, Connecticut, where the population majority is black. Petry vividly depicts life on Dumble Street, allowing her two main characters to tell their story — Abbie Crunch, an older, very proper black woman, who owns a rooming house, and adopted son Link Williams, although with a degree from Dartmouth, opts to work at the “The Last Chance” saloon.
One foggy evening, Link encounters a frightened white woman, Camilo Williams, chased by a madman in a wheel chair. What she is doing after midnight alone, and how the couple ultimately falls in love, is central to this powerful, tragic story of interracial love, opposed by everyone.
. . . narratives ooze intrigue, and . . .characters so absorbing one can’t set aside this collection.
Though the novels are decades old, racism, poverty and discrimination persist, so they are still, sadly, relevant and thoughtful. Petry’s work is dense and wordy, but her narratives ooze intrigue, and her characters so absorbing one can’t set aside this collection.