Over the last few posts I’ve been looking at the American Dream in Ann Petry’s The Street. Specifically, I’ve examined the ways that Petry uses illusions in the Junto and during Lutie’s ride with Boots Smith as commentary on the mythic nature of the American Dream, the illusory nature of the dream for an African American woman such as Lutie. At the core of this elusiveness, as well, is whiteness and its maintaining of white supremacy and power, creating structures that benefit it while subjecting others to poverty and suffering. Whiteness exists at the edges of the novel through the character of Junto, the eponymous owner of the bar where Lutie sees the illusions of the bar butting up against the reality of her existence. Today, I want to look at Junto and how he draws our attention to the structural racism that whiteness supports and upholds.
Junto occupies the margins of the novel, and our initial sight of him occurs in the Junto itself. There, Lutie looks into the mirror behind the bar and sees him sitting alone in the back of the bar. She becomes intrigued by his reflection in the glass, and she thinks about how “even at this this distance his squat figure managed to dominate the whole room.” Junto occupies the space. He owns the space, even though her sits at the back and doesn’t interact with the patrons. Lutie thinks about the countless times she has seen him sitting at the table with “his hand cupped behind his ear as though he were listening to the sound of the cash register,” his eyes scanning the bar, watching everything and everyone.
Later, Boots stands in front of Junto as he sits at the same table. Staring down at Junto, Boots thinks about the fact that the white man could sit at the table the whole night and no one would even pay attention to him or notice him. He could blend into the background. They are “dumb, blind, deaf to Junto’s existence.” They don’t realize that all of the money they spend at the bar, in their rent, or anywhere else in the neighborhood goes to this white man sitting at a table in the back in the bar: “If they wanted to sleep, they paid him; if they wanted to drink, they paid him; if they wanted to dance, they paid him, and never knew it.” Junto works in the background, creating the structures that support his income and subject those in the community to poverty. He exploits them.
We see whiteness at work in Junto’s rise. When we go back and see how him and Mrs. Hedges started working together, we see that Mrs. Hedges provides all of the ideas for Junto’s success. We see Junto, initially, pushing a cart full of bottles, clothing, newspapers, and more as he digs through the trash. They join together in collecting items to sell; however, it is her ideas that make him a success: “It was she who suggested that he branch out, get other pushcarts and other men to work for him. When he bought his first piece of real estate, he gave her the job of janitor and collector of rents.”
While Mrs. Hedges provides the ideas, Junto is the one who achieves the American Dream, employing Mrs. Hedges below him. She becomes the rent collector, not the co-owner or owner of the building. She suggests he split the rooms in the building in half to make more in rent, and he does. She makes more money as well, but she does not succeed in the same way that Junto does. Later, she suggests that she turn the building, partly, into a brothel, and this move increases Junto’s profits. To do this, she needed Junto’s whiteness and his ability to speak with the authorities for protection, which he did. Thus, she makes him more money again.
Junto profits off of Lutie, Mrs. Hedges, Boots, and others in the community. He takes the money he earns and leaves the community, moving it outside of the community, thus not supporting it. At the end of the novel, Lutie starts to think about Junto and his control over her existence and the existence of others. She sees him sitting on a couch, there but not there. He appears to her as “formless, shapeless, a fluid moving mass–something disembodied.” She feels Junto first, then he begins to take shape and she sees him sitting on the couch, his “[g]ray hair, gray skin, short body, thick shoulders.”
He sits there, yet he is not not there. When she did not see him, “she could feel his presence,” creeping in on her. He hovers over her life. He keeps her on the street, and that was “no accident.” Junto’s control of the street (the rent market, the bar, etc) was “the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place.” Junto benefits from the system, monetarily and culturally. He succeeds; yet, for all of her hard work and dedication, Lutie doesn’t. Mrs. Hedges remains in poverty in the same building that Junto gave her. Boots still works underneath Junto. They all make him money and exist underneath his power, his whiteness.
Junto is like the white teacher who teaches in Harlem yet doesn’t live there. She doesn’t;’t know the children and views them as animals. Junto is like the white policemen who come to take Bub away from Lutie. They don’t live in the neighborhood and view its inhabitants as animals and subhuman. Even though Junto “befriends” and works with African Americans, he acts the same way. He makes his money and takes it with him outside of the community. He drains the community of its life, of its resources. He exploits it.
Lutie struggles to survive, constantly thinking about where the money for her survival will come from. She struggles to support Bub, thinking constantly about how she will provide food for him. “In every direction,” Lutie thinks at one point, “anywhere one turned, there was always the implacable figure of a white man blocking the way.” Throughout The Street, Junto is that white man. He embodies whiteness. He embodies the structural racism created and sustained by whiteness. He embodies these structures that Lutie and others butt up against as they struggle to break through and carve out an existence that does not call upon them to wear themselves out thinking about how they will survive day to day.
There is more that I could say, but I will leave it there for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.