In the novel, The Street, Ann Petry portrays blackness that give the readers a look inside the life of a discriminated African American woman in the 1940’s. The author combines feminism and naturalism to depict the domination of men and the barbaric behaviors that live inside of every human being. The concept of this novel is trying to grasp the understandings of blackness in the social world and why it tremendously injures the African American community while using personification, the setting and naturalism to elucidate it.
Looking into depth of the term blackness, it has a complex history. Blackness was constructed as the contrary by white people and developed into a social norm that colored people are not suitable to be associated with whites. This ties into some of the harsh realities we see in this novel such as white privilege. Petry does a remarkable job at delineating the term blackness in her story telling, “If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like.
You couldn’t because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke” . This is an example of how the social term blackness define people in this novel. In this part of the story, a black man was stabbed for entering a bread shop to buy some food. African Americans are put into a lower class, political power and community merely because of the color of their skin.
Yet it is socially acceptable to discriminate the blacks because it is known they are not fit to live with whites. Lutie is very aware of this, stands her ground and tries her hardest to find a job to provide for her kid and herself. It’s one thing to be a black human being in this society but to be a black woman is an even bigger struggle in Harlem, especially for Lutie.
Personification is one out of the three, specific literary elements that are present in this novel. In the very beginning of the book, Petry starts off the story with a vivid description of the wind, “Fingering it’s way along the kerb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that the barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street” . This is an example of one of many personifications in this story. Ann Petry describes the wind as a person with ‘cold fingers’ that makes anyone who is out and about on the streets absolutely miserable. The wind is doing its best to get pedestrians to stay clear out of the streets. The use of this personification is to describe the relationship between the city Harlem and the people who live in it, such as Lutie. The wind strongly symbolizes the hate and the discrimination that Lutie faces in this novel, and the wind is doing it’s best to drive her out. It gives her the chills and constantly mangles with her as she tries to strive for a better life.
Although Petry uses personification in a negative way numerous times in the story, she also uses it in positive way. At this point in the story, winter has left and spring is just beginning, “She had walked along slowly, thinking the sun transformed everything it had shone on” . This quote is an example of the transitioning of the mood and energy in the story. Everyone seems to be out on the streets taking advantage of the sun beaming with warmth. Petry explains how everyone roaming the streets had an unexpected look of ‘graciousness’ on their faces. This symbolizes finding the light in the darkness. Lutie is so enraged majority of the time in the story due to the obstacles she faces as a black woman who is constantly sexualized and unrespected. She tries her hardest not to surrender herself to the harshness of the streets. But in this moment of the story, for a brief second she feels the things are looking up in the black community of Harlem.
The setting is another crucial literary element that ties into trying to understand the concept of blackness in this book. Petry uses imagery to paint a graphic image in the readers head of how this affects Lutie throughout the story. 116th Street in November represents the poverty and the terrible living conditions African Americans faced living in the slums of Harlem, “It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the pavement and lifted it up and lifted it up so that the dirt got in their noses making it difficult to breathe” . Going back to the first page, we find out immediately that Lutie is planning on living in an environment that isn’t welcoming or friendly. Petry foreshadows how this specific setting will manipulate Lutie’s future that sends her spiraling into failure, letting the streets devour her.
When going more into depth about the setting, we can understand how Lutie is unsuccessful in almost everything that she tries to pursue. As a black woman in Harlem, it is incredibly hard to thrive when you are constantly oppressed for the color of your skin and your gender. There are many historical reasons for the cause of the poverty in the city. Although slavery was over, blacks were not free from the discrimination. Which created severe restrictions that forced African Americans into the projects. Thus making it almost impossible to truly be victorious in an environment like so. This is one of the many reason as to why the urban setting was not fit for Lutie and her son, Bub. The relationship between Lutie and the setting has been rocky from the start. Using both personification and the setting, Petry makes it known that from the very beginning that Lutie is not going to enjoy Harlem at all.
Naturalism is the final literary element that completely mends the concept of Petry’s story together. Naturalism is the theory that ethical statements and actions can be brought forth by unethical ones, “Each person inherits compulsive instincts especially hunger, the drive to accumulate possessions, obsession with status, and sexuality and is then subjected to the social and economic forces in the family, the class and the milieu into which that person is born” (Ann Petry and The Street, D2L November 2, 2018). To expand on this, Petry uses this story to portray the harsh struggles black women face in the 1940s and 1950s. Not only are they suffering from the poor treatment due to their gender and skin color, they are also suffering from the male patriarchy. Petry depicts this by exploiting the truth about the cruel reality of being a single mother in the city of Harlem.
Petry uses feminism in, The Streets, by exposing the way black men treat women in Harlem in the 1940s. The domination of the men in Lutie’s life, such as Jones and Boots, play a huge part in her downfall. Petry uses naturalism and feminism to portray the way Lutie was blinded by a mans manipulation. Not only did Lutie let the environment take advantage of her she also let men do the same. The combination of the grim setting, discrimination and male domination hinders Lutie tremendously. Which plays a huge part in the murder as well as her abandoning her son, Bub. The lack of free will in naturalism always somehow leads back to the oppressor, “He was still safe, and there wasn’t a thing she could do that would really harm him, and if she actually did start any trouble, why, his story would land her behind jail bars” . In this quote, Petry is trying to let her audience know that regardless of race at this point, the man will always have the upper hand due to the discrimination of women. This destroys Lutie in the novel because she is trying to find the willpower to stay positive through this all.
Blackness is the creation of infrastructure of racism in America through white supremacy and the social norm to validate and promote race ideas. It is defined as the cultural identity of African Americans. It can also be portrayed in a negative way or a positive way, depending how people use it. Positive as in listening and acknowledging black accomplishments to degrading and discriminating merely for the unique features of people of color and the history behind the melanin. As for the time period in this novel, the 1940s-1950s, we know the formation of white citizens councils who championed the inherent inequality of the races that has played a big part. Such as the black codes. This gave new restrictions on African Americans after the civil war, the Jim Crow Laws. The context and history in this novel is the explanation of the status of the African Americans. To sum up the concept of the Jim Crow Laws: separate but equal. Yet in reality, we know that blacks were truly not equal
The concept of blackness is the true theme to this novel. Petry uses personification, naturalism, and the setting to defy what it means to be a black woman in America in the 1940s. Blackness has affected and influenced the way the characters respond to their actions in the novel. It is the reasons for their downfalls and very few of their accomplishments. As black woman living in the slums of Harlem, it is incredibly hard to thrive off of the environment you are tossed into. Lutie tried her best to work her way around the social history of blackness and failed miserably leaving her with a murder on her hands and abandoning her son. This is common coming from the ghetto’s of a city and as a society we must face these problems and acknowledge them.