THE STREET is the heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young, black, single mother trying to raise her son on the streets of Harlem. First published in 1946, THE STREET was Ann Petry’s debut novel and was the first book by a female author to sell over a million copies. THE STREET is as resonant today as it was in 1946.
Lutie Johnson takes a job as a live-in domestic for a white family in Connecticut and can only afford to come home twice a month to visit her young son, Bub, and her unemployed husband. When she discovers her husband cheating on her, she leaves him, and she and Bub move into a fourth-floor apartment in Harlem. She takes a new job but is barely able to make ends meet. When she is offered an opportunity to sing at a casino owned by a white man, Junto, she jumps at the chance, even though the job means that she must leave Bub alone in the apartment at night. She has dreams of rising out of poverty and leaving Harlem behind. At every turn, Lutie is taken advantage of by both black and white men. Boots, the manipulative band leader; Junto, the casino owner who won’t pay her; and Jones, the superintendent of her building who fondles her clothing while she’s out, all desire her and think she’s an easy mark. But Junto is perhaps the most dangerous because of his position of power.
“In every direction, anywhere one turned there was always the implacable figure of a white man blocking the way, so that it was impossible to escape.”
When Jones attacks her in the hallway, he’s interrupted by Mrs. Hedges, the first-floor resident who runs a brothel out of her apartment. Mrs. Hedges warns Jones not to mess with Lutie because she essentially belongs to Junto, who owns the apartment building. Jones is hellbent on revenge and implicates Bub in a criminal act to get back at Lutie. Bub is taken to a children’s shelter and Lutie is convinced that he’ll be sent to reform school and never escape the poverty of Harlem.
We can feel the hopelessness of Lutie’s situation. She is caught in a cycle of poverty and the walls created by racism, classism, and sexism begin to close in on her.
“The men stood around and the women worked. The men left the women and the women went on working and the kids were left alone . . . They would not stay in the house after school because they were afraid in the empty, silent, dark rooms. And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street. And the street reached out and sucked them up . . . the women work because the white folks give them jobs . . . 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.”
Petry’s voice is distinctive and the motivation of her characters is intelligible. The street is the real antagonist in the novel – a living thing hellbent on destroying its inhabitants through deprivation or exploitation. The street takes mothers away from their children as they go to and from their domestic jobs. The street is a playground for their unattended children, leaving them vulnerable to nefarious people and schemes.
“Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs.” Petry writes.
For Lutie, there is no escape. She is hemmed in on every side by predatory men and exploitive employers, by lack of opportunity and entrenched bias. There will be no happy endings for Lutie Johnson. She will leave Harlem, but not in the way that she had imagined.
I recommend THE STREET for fans of Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON and Colson Whitehead’s THE NICKEL BOYS. Add THE STREET to your antiracism library and discuss it with your book club.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.