Monday, February 22, 2010

The Street by Ann Petry

I felt more than read this book.

I had to let it immerse me like being in a warm bath on a cold day. The feeling was all encompassing and disturbing. My heart was beating fast and the palpitations could be heard across the room. I found myself inhaling and trying to catch my breath from the feeling of an elephant standing on my chest.

Ann Petry's use of language painted a vivid picture of Harlem and the lives of the people who were striving to make a living during a time of Pullman Porters, black men in a segregated war, and hate that could be cut with a knife.

The narrative prose gave the reader a rare opportunity to glimpse into the minds of the characters, beyond just the protagonist. The story unfolded during a short period of time in the burgeoning burrough replete with hope and hunger, misery and miracles. It was both a tragic time and a magical time. Ann Petry's language allowed me to step into the other side of the neighborhood beyond the renaissance of The Angel of Harlem, the story of Dr. May Chinn. The people in Ann Petry's book would have been the patients of Dr. Chinn.

One of the things that stayed with me was the pace, the constant going, the feeling that my heart was racing because I was racing through life just trying to survive being a woman and a black woman at that in a world that wanted to take, take, take.

It also gave me parallels to the strivings and wantings and urgings and disparaging lives of women trapped in a lower income situation, living where they don't want to live, fighting to maintain their dignity and sanity in an environment that was set up to destroy them. I understand Lutie's feelings of failure and hopelessness. And it something that should not be in America, then or now.

Race, sex, violence, discrimination, poverty, crime - all recurring issues in that urban setting and in many urban settings today. It seems like a cycle that never lets up on the choking the lives out of the ones caught up in it. And sometimes the only way out is to escape, even if it meant leaving behind what was trying to be saved.

Ann Petry's writing will stay with me. I can still feel this book, even as it has been almost a month since I read it. I could not write the review right away, I had to ponder the lessons. I have not lived in a tenement or been pulled into a situation where my dignity was threatened, but I have felt the overwhelming tiredness that seeps into the marrow of one's bones. I've felt the exhaustion from just trying to survive in a city when divorced from the sons' father, the constant going and striving and never relaxing. I felt that just as sure as Lutie did, and but for the grace of God go I. I was born in a different time, a different place and had more opportunities than were afforded to her.

Choice is a powerful thing. That was something missing in The Street. Or was it?

"The women work because the white folks give them jobs - washing dishes and clothes and floors and windows. The women work because for years now the white folks haven't liked to give black men jobs that paid enough for them to support their families. And finally it gets to be too late for some of them." pg. 388

Maybe it was about class and station in life. Much the same as the new book I am reading, The Help, set about twenty years after The Street. Yet I feel some of the same despair that grips when a society is consumed with thinking one class or race is better than another, when the powerful strive to destroy the less powerful, when men are denied the right to be the men of their families and when the women are forced into situations beyond their reasoning. When choice is taken away, you are left with The Street.

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