After participating in a dynamic symposium on “Transnational Feminism and the Black Diaspora,” hosted and conceived by Professor Keisha-Khan Perry of Brown University, I set off for Boston.
And more specifically for the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center to rummage through Ann Petry’s papers. I can’t remember how I came across Ann Petry’s first novel The Street (1946) but I do know that Petry’s vivid portrait of Harlem’s 116th St has had a lasting impact on me, so much so that the novel was the subject of one of my dissertation chapters and is part of my book manuscript as well.
“Author Ann Petry said in Hartford Thursday that the ‘sad and terrible’ thing about her first novel, ‘The Street,’ is that she would have to write the same book 20 years later about any ghetto in the United States.”
–“‘The Street’ Still Unchanged,” Hartford Courant, March 7, 1969.
Could Petry have written the same novel today? Her memorable protagonist Lutie Johnson, recently divorced, struggles to maintain her dignity and provide a decent environment to raise her son Bub in. I can’t help but think of Sapphire’s novel Push in the same vein as Petry’s work. More than 50 years later, The Street would NOT be the same book, it would be far more stark.
Pharmacy grad, reporter, writer of novels, short stories, and juvenile literature, Petry remained committed to women’s rights, social justice, and education until her death in 1997. In the last box of her correspondences, dated in the 60s and 70s, I was struck by the letters she’d write to editors of The Times and of other organs in protest of the derogatory images of black people that limned their pages. She had also sent her condolences to President and Mrs. Johnson after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, I didn’t get a clear picture of Petry during the civil rights era.
I have read elsewhere that she was active in the socialist movement. There were no documents that detailed her involvement. I’d be interested to know more about that as well as her personal life. I hate to be the researcher/voyeur but the lack of information about her marriage and intimate life was noticeable. I suspect that the estate might have respected Petry’s penchant for privacy and elected not to include certain details of her life.
Another coup for me was uncovering Ann Petry, the writer. She had pages and pages of character sketches, outlines, and other details about her novels-in-progress. She took her writing very seriously and aimed to craft work that was poetic, well structured, and socially meaningful (without being sociological).
Above all, she seemed committed to exploring the paradoxes of humanity, especially in regards to race and sex. In edition to The Street, The Narrows, A Country Place, and her short fiction compiled as Miss Muriel and Other Stories explore the complexities of class, race, sex, love, and human relations in complex and sometimes unprecedented ways.