Twenty years ago, when I was a young professor about to teach a course on African-American fiction, I set about to find a forgotten or undiscovered classic by a female writer.
I wanted a book that would hold its own against urban classics like Invisible Man or Native Son, an older book that would complement the newer works by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker or the recently republished novels of Zora Neale Hurston. What I discovered was Ann Petry's magnificent 1946 novel, The Street.
Described by some as an urban To Kill a Mockingbird — minus any redemption and hope — The Street tells the story of Lutie Johnson and her 8-year-old son during the last years of the Second World War.
Lutie is a young, hard-working single mother in urban America, trying to get ahead in a world that ignores and exploits her. Her struggles and determination are both inspiring and doomed; in striving to provide for her son's future, she often ignores his immediate needs and fears.
This book shook me so much that whenever I taught it in class, later that night I would slip into my sleeping sons' bedrooms to watch them and make silent promises. Even now, whenever I finish it, I calculate how old the main character's son will be and wonder what sort of life he had. I care deeply about these characters. They are real to me.
The Street creates a lot of discussion, often uncomfortable, in my literature classes. It makes us confront difficult questions about race and class. Who has access to the American Dream? Why do some characters make it but Lutie doesn't? Petry wants her readers to see the two sides of America: the gleaming and moneyed suburbs, where she herself was raised, and the struggles of black women in Harlem, where she moved after her marriage.
You can tell that publishers still have a hard time deciding how to market Petry's novel. Editions today show Lutie in tight skirts, bright colors or stiletto heels that undermine her uprightness and her refusal be a sexual object — everything that is so moving to me about this book. I finally spent a small fortune to buy an early edition, with its 1940s dust jacket showing her face looking unblinkingly at the reader. Look at me, it says. I am somebody. And we believe her.
The Street is a book that raises passion in readers, and in me. It is as relevant now as when it was written in the 1940s. Particularly now, with the upcoming presidential election, it makes us think about what it was like to be a single mother raising a black son to believe he was worthy of all the best this country can offer. I can't think of a better place to start a national conversation about the audacity of hope than with this undiscovered classic, as fresh and moving now as the day it was published.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.