Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dream Deferred

The Street by Ann Petry


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
                        Langston Hughes

There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street.  It rattled the tops of garbage cans, sucked window shades out through the top of opened windows and set them flapping back against the windows; and it drove most of the people off the street in the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues except for a few hurried pedestrians who bent double in an effort to offer the least possible exposed surface to its violent assault.

It found every scrap of paper along the street—theater throwaways, announcements of dances and lodge meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that had enclosed sandwiches, old envelopes, newspapers.  Fingering its way along the curb, the wind set the bits of paper dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street.  It even took time to rush into doorways and areaways and find chicken bones and pork-chop bones and pushed them along the curb.

Cold, gritty, impersonal.  Such is the atmosphere created by Ann Petry in the opening pages of her extraordinary novel The Street.  Set and published in the immediate wake of WWII, the story follows Lutie Johnson, a strong and beautiful African-American woman, in her struggle to gain a foothold—a little peace and security—for her and her eight-year-old son, Bub, amidst the poverty, racism, sexism, and violence of 1940’s Harlem. By the time the story takes place, the great Harlem Renaissance, with its groundbreaking artists, writers, and musicians, with its headlong devotion to civic participation, political equality, and economic and cultural self-determination, is for many, like Lutie Johnson, but a figment of the past. Her life is defined instead by the Great Depression, which—at the time of this story—still casts its shadow over Harlem. ‘Last hired, first fired,’ African-Americans were hit even harder by the Depression than most. At the Depression’s height, 25 percent of Americans had no jobs. In Harlem the rate was as high as 50 percent, tapering off only gradually during the war and in the immediate post-war years.[i]  Harassed, all but consumed by worry in her daily effort to provide a life for her and her son, Lutie Johnson is haunted daily by reminders of the American Dream and its promise to those who work hard, the prospect of her fulfillment as a woman and mother in Harlem but a cruel and mocking mirage.

Described without a trace of sentimentality or self-pity, in a lucid, hard-edged prose, The Street retails the deeply moving struggles of an African-American woman battling the odds in her effort to defy the fate that stalks her.  “Written with cool anger,” writes a critic from Newsday: “The Street rushes toward its fatalistic climax like a train toward a washed-out bridge.”

Ann Petry (1908-1997) was an African American writer most famous for her novel, The Street, a hard-hitting social commentary on black urban life in the 1940s.  Published in 1946, the novel sold 1.5 million copies and brought Petry to national attention. The impact of Petry’s writing continues to be appreciated: literary critics praise her as the most successful follower of the 1940s “Richard Wright school” of urban protest writing; and black feminists cite The Street as the first African-American novel in which motherhood is a major theme. In addition, black feminists commend Petry for showing through The Street ‘s main character, Lutie, that a lack of connection to self and community can result in one’s downfall. (FemBio: Notable Women International)

Also recommended: Miss Muriel and Other Stories, Dafina Press

Painting by William H. Johnson

[1] Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, professor of history at Trinity College and author of “‘Or Does It Explode?’: Black Harlem in the Great Depression,” as well as the forthcoming “To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans During the Depression.”

Peter Adam Nash

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