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Thursday, 21 January 2021

Ann Petry, The Street, Robert Frank, The Nickel Boys, Confederate Flags


The Street by Ann Petry, a black doctor who worked in Harlem in the 1940s, is a book about a mother and her child trying to make a living in a racist, male-dominated society where you can be paid to look after a white family's child (that is Lutie's job until she decides  caring for somebody else's child causes harm to her own child), but it will always be at the expense of the care of your own child. 

It's about childcare, it's about being a woman, it's about being black, it's about being the mother to a black boy, it's about a lot of things. Ultimately, it's not a book that is generous either to white people or to men - the latter didn't go down well with everybody at the time.

It was published in 1946 and sold 1 1/2 million copies. The cover designs are not really indicative either of the main character or the content - there is a lot to write about those. The little blurbs change (the second Signet edition featured loses the 'passion') and motherhood is never mentioned. Nor are price-gouging landlords (and if you read Queenie, or watched I May Destroy You, it's one of the things they have in common with The Street - which is also about property, it's very much about property). 

Here are a few quotes from The Street.

 'Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place.'


“You know a good-looking girl like you shouldn’t have to worry about money,’ he said softly. She didn’t say anything and he continued, ‘In fact, if you and me can get together a coupla nights a week in Harlem, those lessons won’t cost you a cent. No sir, not a cent.’

      Yes, she thought, if you were born black and not too ugly, this is what you get, this is what you find. It was a pity he hadn’t lived back in the days of slavery, so he could have raided the slave quarters for a likely wench any hour of the day or night.”

“She didn’t have to turn around, anyway; he was staring at her back, her legs, her thighs. She could feel his eyes traveling over her — estimating her, summer her up, wondering about her. As she climbed the last flight of stairs, she was aware that the skin on her back was crawling with fear. Fear of what? she asked herself. Fear of him, fear of the dark, of the smells in the halls, the high steep stairs, of yourself?”


'She held the paper in her hand for a long time, trying to follow the reasoning by which that thin ragged boy had become in the eyes of a reporter a ‘burly Negro.’ And she decided that it all depended on where you sat how these things looked. If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like. You couldn’t because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.'


I always wonder if Robert Frank read the Street because when I see his picture of the black nanny with the white baby it makes me think of the Lutie (the mother) and her son (Bub). 

And if you want a follow-up to The Street, the Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a place to go. It tells the story of a black boy who is sent to an abusive and punitive reform school in Florida. Like The Street, it has a great ending.

It's based around the Dozier School for Boys among other places. That's a picture of it below, and here are some of the testimonies from some of the survivors. 

If you wonder where such cruelties come from they are embedded in our histories, in our power structures, in our political leaders. Very happily, that disgusting man left the US Presidency so we won't be seeing the picture again in the Capitol for the next four years - the thoughts will be there in some, but not the flag. And the flag is my final memory of the Trump presidency. And he got voted for by 75 million people. Trump might be over, but the rest isn't...

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