Over the last couple of posts, I have been looking at the illusion of the American Dream in Ann Petry’s The Street. Today, I want to continue that discussion by finishing my examination of Lutie’s first visit to the Junto in the novel. During her time at the Junto, the illusion of the space, a space that provides an escape from the oppression of the street, comes to light. Even though Lutie perceives the American Dream as an achievable goal for all, especially after her time with the Chandlers, the Junto serves as a confrontation of that dream through its facade. The illusion allows the patrons of the Junto to feel escape as they continue to live in subjugation to Junto, the white specter that hangs over the entire narrative.
After Lutie gets the check for her second beer, a drink that she could not afford, she begins to reflect on how she wants to stay in the soft glow of the Junto longer “where there were no shadowed silences, no dark corners.” Rather, the Junto provided light and solace. This feeling keeps Lutie sitting at the bar. She dreads exiting the door and returning to the street because the warmth of the Junto, the false-security that its facade provides, entices her and makes her feel welcome, even though she knows that the money she spends while there will affect her budget and that she will never see it again because Junto and the waiters will take it outside of the community, leaving her community to suffer.
As Lutie sits at the bar, Boots Smith saddles up next to her and says he’ll pay for her drinks. Boots starts to talk with her, and he asks Lutie if she sings. Lutie puts the question off as she takes everything in, looking at Junto in the mirror and about all of the housework she had to do when she went home. She thinks about the ways “the walls had beaten her.” Boots gets her another drink then tells her his name. When he does this, Lutie’s mind immediately goes to the Chandlers’ house in Connecticut. She thinks about the lawn and the cat in the front yard as it prepares to pounce on its prey. Here, Lutie sees the American Dream of the house in the suburbs, but she also catches a glimpse of a preying cat, one ready to pounce and extinguish her dreams before they even arrive.
Boots expands the illusion because he asks if Lutie wants to sing with his band, and Lutie, even though she knows that Boots is trying to pick her up, lets her mind wander to the ways that a singing career can provide access to the American Dream, allowing her and Bub to escape the street and achieve the illusory house and security reminiscent of the Chandlers. Even as Lutie thinks this, she knows that it’s a mere illusion. This comes to the forefront when Boots and Lutie leave the Junto. As they walk towards 117th Street, Lutie starts to look at the stores lining the street and notices that they provide “a sudden shocking contrast to the big softly lit interior of the Junto.”
The stores are the reality, the illusion shattered. She sees the butcher shops “with pigs’ feet, hog maw, neck bones, chitterlings, ox tails, tripe” all lining the windows, these items “didn’t cost much because they didn’t have much solid meat on them.” She looks at the “notion stores” and all of the garments within them, thinking that “most of it good for one wearing and no more” so a person would have to buy items continuously, perpetuating the cycle of poverty that Lutie works to try and escape. Seeing all of this “stiffened her determination to leave streets like this behind her.” The illusion and the reality come into contact with one another, and the illusion provides an escape from the reality, and it consumes her even though it will not accept her.
When they reach Boot’s car, Lutie sees how much money Boots makes and this only increases her feelings that she can succeed. However, she also knows that because she is Black she is cut off from this success. She thinks about Boots’ car and the fact that it is similar to ones that would drive down Park Avenue. She thinks, “This world was one of great contrasts” because while some succeed that success walls her out because of the color of her skin allowing her to “only look at it with no expectation of ever being able to get inside.” At this thought, Lutie begins to ponder that it would have been better if she was born deaf and blind so she would never see the dreams that others denied her, the dreams that every person is entitled to, the dream and expectation of “sunlight and good food and [a space] where children were safe.”
The illusions cut both ways, too, as Lutie begins to think as she rides beside Boots in his car. She thinks about the power that the car gives him, the power to show his success and rub the noses of whites in it. When Boots or another Black driver would pass a white driver, the whites would look or yell because the Black driver “had for a brief moment to feel equal, feel superior” to the white driver. For the Black driver, it provided confidence, allowing him or her to “hold their heads up the next day and the day after that.” Even thought small, that moment of confronting white supremacy allowed for a fleeting moment of pride, a tangible yet also illusory moment.
Lutie continues to think that the white drivers hated this “because possibly they, too, needed to go ob feeling superior. Because if they didn’t, it upset the delicate balance of the world they moved in when they could see for themselves that a black man in a ratclap car could overtake and pass them on a hill.” The challenge to their position, the challenge to a false position of superiority, causes the white drivers to react. Their feelings of superiority, like Lutie’s views in the Junto, are nothing more than an illusion of superiority, an illusion created and sustained on the belief of superiority based on skin color and the myth of race. If this illusion cracked, what would happen?
Lutie continues to think, “Because if there was nothing left for them but that business of feeling superior to black people, and that was taken away even for the split second of one car going ahead of another, it left them with nothing.” It cracked their existence, causing them to question their own positions. Unable to even question the false image they created, the feeling turns to anger and resentment. The illusion reinforces their beliefs, causing them to double down on their feelings of superiority and their walling off of themselves and walling off to keeps others out. The illusions kill.
Next post, I’ll start to talk some about Junto himself. 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.