“The Street” as a Distorting Lens in Ann Petry’s Novel

Chelsea Horne


Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) tracks the struggle of protagonist Lutie Johnson as she attempts to break out of the cyclical violence and poverty of mid 20th century Harlem. This essay presents the view of “the street” as a distorting lens, exaggerating and exacerbating black disillusionment. The street warps reality; by distending images of the world around Lutie, the street creates a hostile and volatile environment. Furthermore, as revealed in Petry’s novel, “the street” is a passive-aggressive, omnipresent character that pervades day-to-day life in contemporary African- American metropolitan neighborhoods. Moreover, “the street” actively traps its inhabitants within the physical confines of designated urban black belts. In this sense, “the street” functions as a semi-conscious adversary, facilitating the establishment of color lines within the city; it is the white construct of big cities, “the North’s lynch mobs” and the method “to keep Negroes in their place.”1 By establishing the varying aspects of “the street” and its invasive effects on the black psyche, Lutie’s tragic downfall is perpetuated by the negative influences of “the street,” as an ideology, not just a geographic space. Lutie first enters the scene a paragon of true American ideology; strongwilled, hard working, and full of higher aspirations. By comparing herself to role models such as Benjamin Franklin, Lutie paints herself an image of the American Dream she wishes to achieve. However, as a result of societal oppressions, particularly racism and sexism, Lutie’s aspirations are systematically beaten out of her from the moment she sets foot on 116th Street, until she is finally forced to surrender everything.


Race; Gender; Harlem, NY

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