Like a lot of the texts that I teach in my classes, I hadn’t read Ann Petry’s The Street before I assigned it in this semester’s Multicultural American Literature course. The only work, up to this point, that I had read from Petry was her short story “Like a Winding Sheet.” A few years back, Keith Clark started talking to me about The Street, and others, in various spaces, kept saying it’s one of the best novels they have read. While I was in Norway, I found a Norwegian copy at a store and bought it. This year, I decided to teach it, and I was glad I did. While I have issues with the novel, as I do with almost any text, Petry’s writing and her narrative highlight the illusions and myths of America, specifically for African Americans. Over the next few posts, I want to look at some of these moments. Today, I want to look at the illusory nature of the American Dream throughout the novel.
From the outset of The Street, Lutie Johnson works to move her son, Bub, and herself away from the poverty and oppression that encompass their existence. In the opening chapter, Lutie looks for a new apartment, a move up from her and her son’s current living situation, and when she finds the new apartment, even with the predatory super and the dank feeling of the rooms, she sees it a “just one step farther up the ladder of success,” a step that will provide Bub with “a better chance.”
Lutie’s desire and feelings for the American Dream stem from a myriad of factors, but one of the most notable is when she works as a domestic for the wealthy, white Chandlers in Connecticut. She sees their existence, and she continually compares her life to theirs, extolling their success. To Lutie, they live the American Dream because they are rich and successful, because they went to “good” colleges and can provide that same education for their children. Working for the Chandlers, Lutie took in the myth of the American Dream, the myth that if one works hard and focuses that the person can succeed. She would listen to the Chandlers, and “she aborbed some of that same spirit. The belief that anybody could be rich if he wanted to and worked hard enough and figured it out carefully enough.” Lutie looks around and sees the Chandlers success. She sees the Pizzinis, Italian immigrants, succeed with their business.
When Lutie looks at the Pizzinis, she asks herself, “Who would have thought that the old Italian couple who ran a vegetable store would be living in a fine house in a fine neighborhood? How had they managed to do that on the nickels and dimes they took in selling lettuce and grapefruit?” She thinks about the Pizzinis’ large house and the fact that they sent their daughter to college, all while knowing that Mrs. Pizzini was illiterate. She sees the success, but what she does not see, or what she does not notice at this point, is the fact that while the Pizzinis’ Italian ethnicity may marginalize them their proximity to the hegemonic whiteness of America allows them to move up the rungs of the ladder while Lutie’s blackness keeps her struggling to hold on to the rungs and climb upwards.
With the Pizzinis and the Chandlers, Lutie sees what they achieve. She sees this and thinks that her life would be so much better with money and success. Seeing this, she begins to question her own work ethic and the work ethic of her husband Jim. The mythological nature of the American Dream, a dream saturated in whiteness, seeps into Lutie’s psyche, and it takes root within her brain, causing her to question her own work ethic instead of the systems that keep her, Bub, Jim, and others in subjugation due to the color of their skin. She thinks, “they hadn’t tried hard enough, worked long enough, saved enough.” The roots of systemic racism and white supremacy spread, under the guise of the American Dream, and Lutie falsely assumes that if she works harder, longer, and saves money she’ll be just like the Chandlers of the Pizzinis. However, the cyclical and psychological impact of poverty, a poverty brought about by the systemic racism that encompasses Lutie and others in Harlem, causes her to see her situation as her own fault, not as the product of white supremacy.
Even when Jonathan Chandler shoots himself on Christmas morning, in front of his family and Lutie, she realizes that money will not buy happiness; however, “she didn’t lose her belief in the desirability of having money.” She also realizes the ways that money shapes the narrative, the ways it shields the wealthy, and in the case whites, from the unsavory details of the event. Instead of Jonathan committing suicide in front of his family and Lutie, the papers called it “an accident with a gun,” shifting the narrative and positioning it as something merely unfortunate that occurred, not as a deliberate act caused by something else.
Lutie’s time with the Chandlers, including the vast library and magazines which Lutie compared to reading during a “college education,” leads Lutie “to go to night school” where she studied filing and short hand so she could take the civil service exam while she worked in a steam laundry. She felt, at times, that she coudn’t do it, but every time that though crossed her mind, “[s]he would think of the Chandlers and their young friends” who would say, “It’s the richest damn country in the world.” Lutie bought into the myth. She bought into the whitewashed American Dream, a dream not available to her because she was a Black woman in America.
While Lutie, for most of the novel, buys into the American Dream, we see the cracks and the illusions of the dream throughout the novel. We see the myth of the American Dream and the ways that whiteness provides the path for the American Dream. These moments come out in various scene in The Street, and it is here where I want to pick up in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.