Book Review: The Street by Ann Petry (The Real Help Reading Project)
In 1944 Lutie Johnson believes that all it takes is hard work to succeed, so when she finds an apartment in Harlem that she can move into with her son, Bub, she sees it as a step up. Get him away from her dad’s gin-drinking girlfriend and all the roomers packed in the house. But it seems as though her hard work does nothing against the street and the walls that the white people build around the colored people brick by brick.
It’s hard to believe that Amy and I only have three books left after this in our project. Although we rather arbitrarily assigned the order of the books, I’m glad this one came toward the end. I doubt I would have understood the events in it or valued its perspective as much without the nonfiction reading we did prior.
The book is exquisite in the way it demonstrates how a racist society tears families apart. Hearing about black men being unable to find work in our nonfiction readings felt so cold and stark; I was left unable to understand why that would cause a man to leave his family. But through Lutie I came to understand. At first she doesn’t understand how her husband could cheat on her and be so fine with them breaking up, but eventually she does understand. He couldn’t find work in the city as a black man. She finds work as a maid in a white family’s house. She’s gone most of the time. He feels emasculated. Now, I know my feminist followers will object to this, but I remind you, this was not a choice on black families’ parts back then. It was forced upon them. Anything that is forced upon you can cause real self-esteem problems. As Lutie says, how can one manage a family in conditions like that?
Petry also clearly demonstrates how this break up of the home then leads to a generation of lost children. with Lutie working all day, her son, Bub, comes home to an empty, dank apartment. He takes up with the wrong crowds, because it’s scary to be in the apartment alone. He’s only eight. It’s easy to understand how he makes bad judgment calls, especially when his mother is constantly worrying about money around him. Seeing it spelled out with “real” people makes it all more understandable than the numbers and statistics found in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. In Lutie’s case, her family fell apart twice before she even really realized it was happening.
The other strong element in this book was the hopelessness of the capitalistic American Dream. Not just the hopelessness of it, but the harmfulness of it. Lutie herself realizes that she never thought of anything but keeping her family afloat until going to work for the wealthy white family in Connecticut where she “learned” that all it takes is hard work and perseverance to become wealthy. What a false lesson. What a horrible thing to believe at face value. Yet, Lutie does, and it influences almost every single decision she makes for herself and Bub that leads to their ultimate downfall. Yes, part of their downfall is absolutely brought about by racism, but part is brought about by her believing in the system and not rebelling against it.
For instance, instead of spending what little time she does have outside of work with Bub teaching him and helping him, Lutie spends it pursuing a singing career. After being gone working in civil services all day, she leaves Bub alone at night yet again. Similarly, she penny-pinches and yells at Bub so much that Bub starts to believe that they are desperate for money, when in fact his mother is just attempting to save up to move to a better neighborhood. I get the value of a better neighborhood, but I think Lutie underestimates the value of her own impact on her son. She studies angrily at night instead of making the studying a bonding thing. She tells him he can’t stay up and read because of the cost of the electricity, which just blew my mind because you would think she would want him to read. It all adds up until Bub is not only almost constantly alone but also worrying about money at the age of eight. I can’t help but think if Lutie had just focused on making their home the best she could and making Bub feel happy and safe that it might have come out better. I’m not judging Lutie. It’s so incredibly easy to get caught up in the capitalistic belief system, especially when you’ve been scrambling your whole life and see money as a way to combat racism. I found myself constantly wishing and hoping that Lutie would stumble across some sort of progressive society that would help her fight for justice. Of course, in the real world, that doesn’t often happen, and Petry does an amazing job depicting real life in the real Harlem of the 1940s.
Of course, Lutie and her family are not the only ones unhappy. Although she only works for them for a few chapters in the book, the white family from Connecticut is profoundly unhappy, and Lutie sees it. The husband and wife ignore each other. The husband is a raging alcoholic. The wife is so focused on affairs that she ignores her son. The son just wants attention and can only get it from the maid. The brother-in-law kills himself on Christmas morning.
Why do I bother pointing this out? Well, it’s just further evidence the constant theme throughout our reading project. Racism and inequality hurt everyone in the society. Some more than others, yes, but it hurts everyone. The true values of life–love, time, companionship, laughter–they’re lost amidst the fight to maintain inequality and acquire money. And that’s largely what slavery was all about, wasn’t it? Establishing a plantation to become filthy rich instead of a farm where you make ends meet. And the perceived need for a plantation leads to a desire for cheap labor which leads to slavery which leads to maintaining racism in your head to justify it. And after Emancipation, the desire to hold onto your filthy wealth leads you to judge others as below you when they’re not. And racism is an “easy” way to do that.
But where does that leave those caught in the system? For Lutie, it leaves her a truly lost cause and her son yet another black boy with a record. Revolution and change takes time, effort, bravery. Even in the simple day to day decision to choose quality time over money. To choose to go against the American, consumer grain and just try to make a quality life for yourself. It’s fascinating and appalling how deeply entrenched in our culture the perception of wealth equaling quality of life is, yet it’s there. I think, to me, that is what is most appalling in the idea of “The Help.” Most people do not need a maid. Unless you are in a wheelchair or missing limbs or blind or have some other physical limitation, you do not need a maid. And yet some classes of society view it as necessary to make someone else clean up after them in their own home. Nobody is above cleaning up the filth from themselves and their own family. Nobody. And in the meantime, those that they hire to clean it up must do double-duty and clean up two homes and are left without enough energy for quality time with their own family. It honestly disgusts me.
Source: Public Library
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!