Senior Honors Project
My idea to adapt Ann Petry's novel, The Street, harkens back to a trans-formative experience I had with the book during my first year of college. "English 2900: Race and Social Structures" included Petry's work as a kind of counter-perspective to Richard Wright's Native Son. Although Wright's novel has long been considered a classic of the African-American canon, his work never resonated with me in quite the same way as The Street. Petry's chronicle of Lutie Johnson, a single, African-American mother attempting to get herself and her son off 116th Street, Harlem, in the 1940s left me equally devastated and profoundly moved. Neither as overtly political as Native Son, nor as emotionally unavailable as Wright's prose, The Street places its readers into the resigned despair of its surroundings with its stark realism, the immediacy of the protagonist's situation, and Petry’s prose, making the mundane profound: “She watched the butcher slap the hamburger on a piece of waxed paper; fold the paper twice, and slip the package into a brown paper bag. Handing him a dollar bill, she tucked the paper bag under her arm and held her pocketbook in the other hand so that he would have to put the change down on the counter. She never accepted change out of his hand, and watching him put it on the counter, she wondered why. Because she didn’t want to touch his chapped roughened hands? Because he was white and forcing him to make the small extra effor of putting the change on the counter gave her a feeling of power?” (62). Petry's prose is immediately visual--conjuring vivid images of a desolate post-World War II Harlem, neither jubilant at the outcome of the war nor reaping the economic benefits incumbent to white America as the sole victor. Petry's Harlem bears few traces of the Renaissance or of any kind of enlightenment beyond heightened race consciousness, likely precipitated by the continued disenfranchisement of African Americans despite their contributions to the war effort. Petry's Harlem is home to characters who are living embodiments of the street that has raised them; her characters mirror the disrepair and impoverishment of Harlem itself. Through Petry's language, these characters are fully realized in such a way that makes no justification for their failings but provides their motivations with explications that are analogous to their social, economic, and emotional situation. Thus, the villains of The Street are only villains according to the structuring of the plot; readers are to understand that the true villainy lies with the interlocking systems of oppression in an era not so distant from our own. “Perhaps it was better to take things as they were and not try to change them. But who wouldn’t have wanted to live in a better house than this one and who wouldn’t ahve struggled to get out of it? --and the only way that presented itself was to save money. So it was a circle, and she could keep on going around it forever and keep on ending up in the same place, because if you were black and you lived in New York and you could only pay so much rent, why, you had to live in a house like this one. And while you were out working to pay the rent on this stinking, rotten place, why, the street outside played nursemaid to your kid” (407). Unfortunately, the same prose that inspired me to pen an adaptation has also propelled its author into relative anonymity and her work into the critical purgatory that is the category of the "sentimental" American bestseller. While Wright is consistently praised for the scope of his work and the audacity of its message, Petry's novel has been recognized solely for its popularity--and even then, this recognition has been minimal and, by this point, largely forgotten. This is to say that Petry is hardly remembered for the one fact of her legacy which cannot be ignored or disputed: she is the first African American woman to sell a million copies of her work. Critics might pay lip service to this accomplishment but any discussion around the aesthetics of Petry's work has long since ceased.
However, it seemed to me at the time of my first encounter with the book (as it still does today) that the novel explores the myth of the American Dream with an unrepentant honesty and a more realistic criticism than Wright's earlier work. Rather than deconstructing the American Dream as a segregated ethos reflexive of the society that constructed it, Petry's novel distills the myth to its purest characteristic: the naivete and disillusionment necessary to continue propagating such a facile dream. Not only does Petry re-contextualize the genre from the perspective of a woman--and an African American woman at that--"she illustrates how black women subvert the quest for the American Dream and fulfill their own version of it" (Clark 496). In Petry's deviation from the genre Wright made popular, the protagonist is unreliable due to her idealistic adherence to an American ethos that would be racist were it not, in fact, nonexistent. The only characters who achieve satisfactory growth and emotional resolution in "The Street" are the two women who learn to manipulate their surroundings in order to remain above and ahead of them: Min and Mrs. Hedges. Our protagonist departs the novel as a murderer who consequently abandons her young son; her sense of moral superiority over Mrs. Hedges, in particular, has left her ultimately defeated by the street in a way that Mrs. Hedges never has nor ever will experience. We, the reader, are left to understand that the dream is not deferred nor unavailable to Lutie strictly because of racial or gender prejudice; the dream is an abstract, an imaginary thing, and only the conscious acceptance of this fact can lead to any semblance of freedom.
Rosado, Tréza, "The Street: An Adaptation of the Novel by Ann Petry" (2011). Antonian Scholars Honors Program. 3.