Meena Kirupakaran, Mackenzie Kaleta, Hannah Michaelis, Haley Bentham and Sreya Roy of ENGL 471 at Queen’s University discusses Ann Petry’s novel, The Street in addition to songs that complement and augment the core themes in the book.
ANN PETRY- THE STREET: THE FACADES OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
ALMOST THERE- PRINCESS AND THE FROG (INTRO SONG)
In Ann Petry’s The Street the city life of Harlem New York buzzes around the protagonist Lutie, who is constantly resisting her undeniable role within this city. By looking at how Lutie exposes ruptures in the American Dream, we can see how it exists as a façade for racism and misogyny in the mid-20th century. This is seen through the geographical barriers of the city, enforcing this inability to attain the American dream; represented by the songs Alexander Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda and Living for the City by Stevie Wonder, the descriptions of silence that enforces this sense of anxiety rather than peace represented by the songs; Cranes in the Sky by Solange and Blackbird by the Beatles, the poor representations of black masculinity of the period which thus puts the sexes in opposition to what is deemed as the American dream represented by the songs; If I ruled the world by Nas, and Keep Ya Head up by Tupac, and that any attempt at upward mobility only further puts Lutie at risk of sexual violence rather than successes represented by the songs Forgive them father by Lauryn Hill, Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac, Four Women by Nina Simone, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, and Billie Holiday’s “You Let Me Down”.
Released in 2015 from the musical “Hamilton”, the piece, Alexander Hamilton depicts the life of a founding father who struggles to make it big in New York City. Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, an American born to Puerto Ricans in Manhattan, this piece truly captures the essence of the American Dream. The striking repetition in the verses of the piece seamlessly trace the life of Alexander, whilst also giving audiences a glimpse of the what the hardships of the city were. Similar to Hamilton, Lutie is a lower class bourgeoise trying to fight her way to the top of the chain however, both are constricted by their geographical spaces to attain what they truly want. For Hamilton, “In New York you can be a new man,” reverberates in his head whereas for Lutie the American Dream is deemed by life outside of the city. For Lutie, this physical barrier is the Hudson River (161)—on the other side of the river is Jersey, a space where she can raise her son away from the segregated city however, she is unable to due to the circumstances she is controlled by.
Alexander Hamilton went on to become one of America’s founding fathers thus attaining the American Dream—he went on to fight for freedom against the British and established along with many others, the 13 colonies of America. Lutie also dreams to live a life similar to the founding fathers, in particular, Ben Franklin. According to Vernon Lattin, in a section of the Literary History of the United States, he asserts that Benjamin Franklin was the “living demonstration of the fact that in a republican society, where class distinctions do not prevent recognition of talent and genius, a poor boy may seize opportunities and rise to positions reserved for the privileged” (69). Lutie Johnson, although she is black, a female, poor, and aware of the fact that she is living during a time where there is, racism, sexism, and economic slavery, she doesn’t understand the ironic reality of the American dream as it applies to her. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, Lutie assumed that she could have a happy life just like Benjamin Franklin, but again she was so determined to have the American dream, she failed to realize that the American dream did not apply to her because of the racially oppressed society.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON- LIN MANUEL MIRANDA
The landscape that surrounds Lutie is a simple example of how she cannot attain the American Dream due to the physical barriers that prevent her. The barriers that surround Lutie prevent her from success and instead expose her to the misogynistic and racist implements of society. For most of the novel, Lutie fails to realize that her current state of poverty and inability to get out are tied to the surrounding area that she lives in. Jasmine Griffin’s, “Ann Petry: Walking in Harlem” states that, “In Petry’s fiction, the space is plagued by substandard housing; the place was filled with individuals trying desperately to create meaningful lives for themselves and their children,”(81). This desperation of trying to attain the American Dream whilst navigating life throughout the street is mirrored in Stevie Wonder’s, Living Just Enough for the City, where he explicitly describes the physical barriers of the city as a whole. Wonder echoes the difficulties that Lutie goes through when singing, “Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty,” which can also be applied to Lutie’s apartment on 116th street that, “envelop her” (12) as they also surround her and Bub and prevent her from escaping her reality. The verse, “His mother goes to scrub the floors for many, And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny,” represents Lutie’s never ending work cycle and how she neglects Bub in the process (43).
Both the song and Lutie’s experience are described as having an inescapable path from the inability to attain the American Dream due to the racialized system. No matter what they do, the physical barriers surrounding them, inevitably worsen their conditions than that of their white counterparts.
LIVIN’ JUST ENOUGH FOR THE CITY- STEVIE WONDER
If I Ruled the World is a song that surrounds the stereotypical life of black men in the city, the idea of how race determines the way they are treated by authorities, and how race influences the way in which they are perceived from the public. A constant barrier within Antebellum New York, was this misconception, or at least misrepresentation of what the black man is within society, and how this thus affects his role in the family unit. It is like the men within the novel The Street that we receive only this same perception of black men. We receive the same racialized barriers, thus showing the contemporary effects this type of racialized system has upon an entire society of peoples.
Nasir Jones’ song “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” featuring Lauryn Hill was released in 1996 and is about a hypothetical world free from racism. In the article, “Rap Music and Its Violent Progeny,” rap music, derived from “the African tradition of speaking rhythmically,” (Richardson 175) is not a genre created solely for economic gain or aligned with the traditional values of the American Dream. Rap music is a form of catharsis and it has become a means for people to express their discontent (Richardson 175) and provide a political commentary on lower income African American urban life (Richardson 177) similar to that experienced by Lutie in Harlem. Nas’ song is, in and of itself, a yearning for the betterment of black lives as depicted in the line “If I ruled the world, imagine that / I’d free all my sons”. Just as Nas’ song addresses the complicated reality of black life, Petry’s The Street requires the reader to consider the nuances and complexities of black masculinity within the text.
Much like the genesis of rap from its violent roots, Petry’s male characters, such as the dynamic Mr. Jones, are products of the overarching frustration brought about by racial oppression. For example, Mr. Jones’ intense desire for female companionship and possession was ultimately brought about by his “deadly loneliness” (Petry 85), a “loneliness born of years of living in basements” (Petry 85). Inevitably, Jones exercises his desire in a way that makes Lutie feel threatened because the “choking awfulness of his [Jones] desire” (Petry 15) physically paralyzes her, thus stifling her agency. Jones’ isolation parallels Nas’ assertion that “So many years of depression make me vision … history’s told foul,” indicating that the marginalization brought about by racism have shaped Jones’ predatory outlook. His once innocuous desire for companionship has morphed into an obsession threatening female agency and well-being. Petry’s framing of Jones’ desire works to expose the nuance that his past oppression has shaped his current role as an oppressor.
IF I RULED THE WORLD- NAS FT. LAURYN HILL
Tupac’s powerful anthem championing black women, released in 1993, reflects both the negative depictions of black masculinity and the plight of black women in America. The two-fold impact of the song is mirrored in The Street, as each black male character within the novel is violent and antagonistic. Black men are consistently presented as threats to Lutie, whether through abandonment, sexual violence or abuse. The lyrics, “Hell of a hand without a man, feelin’ helpless because there’s too many things for you to deal with”, reflect Lutie’s experience as a single black mother; despite Lutie’s tireless efforts to better life for herself and Bub, it is impossible without a man. Critical reviews have noted that Lutie’s pursuit of autonomy is foiled as she exists within a society that routinely prevents self-actualization, condemning black women as inherently deviant and sexually immoral (Myree-Mainor 48). Despite the constant oppression faced, Lutie embodies Tupac’s lyrics, continuously keeping her head up and projecting sexual propriety.
The salient message in Tupac’s lyrics can be seen in the line, “We ain’t meant to survive, ‘cause it’s a set-up”, which embodies the gatekeeping of the American Dream. Although unable to realize it, Lutie’s efforts to achieve the American Dream are doomed, as this ideal is unavailable to her as a black woman. This is reinforced by William Scott, who argues “The Street” is foremost a critique of the American Dream, as Lutie’s blind faith in this ideal, often reflected through her reverence for Benjamin Franklin, leads to her eventual downfall (89).
Tupac’s 1993 hit single “Keep Ya Head Up,” featuring R&B singer Dave Hollister, can be read as a feminist anthem and ultimately challenges the hostility of black masculinity. Founded on the well-known phrase, “things are gonna get easier,” from The Five Stairsteps’ 1970s track “O-o-h Child,” Tupac’s re-envisioning remains rap’s quintessential ode to black women (Tinsley). Tupac wrote “Keep Ya Head Up” when he was only 21 and defends black women from within the male dominated genre of rap. Tupac’s unyielding belief in the song has never faltered and he stated in a 1995 Los Angeles Times Interview, “I think the s— that I say, no one else says” (Tinsley). “Keep Ya Head Up” highlights the unique hardships of the underrepresented black woman and also acts as a catalyst for exposing the illusion or “setup” of the “American” way. Petry’s depictions of black men as predatory, such as Mr. Jones and Boots, work to subtly code them as products of systemic racism in lieu of their being innately violent men. Tupac also implicitly references the “November wind” (Petry 1) that opens the novel stating “I try and find my friends, but they’re blowin’ in the wind,” indicating that insubstantial forces have aligned with the contrived oppressors that ultimately prevent Lutie from attaining the American Dream.
KEEP YA HEAD UP- TUPAC
“Redemption Song,” released in 1980, was written by reggae singer-songwriter Bob Marley and is widely celebrated as an anthem of emancipation. The unembellished, acoustic version became the concluding track of Uprising, the final Bob Marley and The Wailers’ album released during the singer’s lifetime and is, in effect, a last testament (McCann). Given Marley’s cancer diagnosis, the song was a way for him to come to terms with his own mortality. The anthem quotes the Pan-African orator Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech “The Work that Has Been Done,” chiefly the lines “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery … none but ourselves can free our minds” (McCann). Even though its rhythmic content differs from most reggae, “Redemption Song” remains at the heart of Jamaican music and influence.
Marley’s message of genuine emancipation, a state of mind, is particularly relevant to The Street’s false guise of the attainability of the material American Dream for black people. Lutie’s susceptibility as a single black mother to these appealing American ideals have caused her to confuse them with true emancipation. For example, the “wave of self-confidence” (Petry 63) that Lutie attributes to herself and her belief in her ability to triumph over her societal oppressors through material gains is ironic in light of the song’s line “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. Marley’s lyrics of self-liberation are not entirely possible for Lutie as her perception of success is contingent upon the economic values of the society in which she lives; a patriarchal culture that champions whiteness. In the article “Ann Petry and the American Dream,” Vernon Lattin defines the “American Dream itself” (69) as “the spring that operates the trap” (69). Marley’s culminating lines “All I ever had / Redemption songs” conveys the notion that true emancipation lies within and is not an external system to be bought into; a reality that Lutie, given her oppression, will likely never realize. In essence, true “Redemption” and emancipation lie in the ethereal, spiritual, and malleable nature of a simple song rather than the world of economic gain.
REDEMPTION SONG – BOB MARLEY
Nina Simone was a prominent singer and civil rights activist active within the same period as Ann Petry. The song “Four Women” was released in 1966 following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four young black girls were killed during an act of white supremacy by the Ku Klux Klan. Carol Henderson – a contributor to the journal of Modern Fiction Studies – asserts that Petry referring to her characters as “the walking wounded” depicts numerous female characters who have, to some extent, been marked or bear the trauma from their experiences within Harlem (850). Henderson states, “…they [Petry’s characters] are marked by the prejudices of race, class, and gender, and bruised by the many systems of oppression that relegate them to poverty, obscurity, and even death” (850). Henderson’s remarks are illustrated throughout both Lutie’s experiences within the text as well as within Simone’s lyrics. Simone’s song was a response to the tragedy of the church bombing, with each of the four black women representing a pervasive stereotype within America.
The four women of Simone’s song are effectively “marked” by trauma through both the destruction of their bodies and their reduction to living stereotypes, which robs the women of true agency and individuality. Simone’s Aunt Sarah is “strong enough to take the pain / inflicted again and again”; Saffronia’s mother was raped, “My father was rich and white / He forced my mother late one night”; Sweet Thing belongs to, “Anyone who has money to buy”; Peaches says, “my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days”. Each of Simone’s characters indicate how racism and misogyny fall, with great violence, upon the bodies of black women. Simone reveals the many hardships faced by black women throughout America, and many which Lutie herself faced. Allusions to sexual assault, continuous suffering, the sexualizing of black female bodies and, ultimately, the struggle for black women to exist within a white, patriarchal society.
The various issues raised within Simone’s song reveal the numerous barriers which prevent Lutie from successfully pursuing the American Dream. As a black woman, Lutie cannot safely exist, much less thrive. In Lutie’s idealistic attempts for upward mobility she becomes vulnerable to sexual assault: when Lutie moves into her own apartment she is nearly raped by the super, Jones (273); she attempts to find employment as a singer and is propositioned by the white man she meets with (321); when Lutie tries to secure money from Boots to free Bub he tries to sexually assault her (429). Harlem transforms Lutie into the “walking wounded” as Petry stated, she is not safe within her own body and ultimately is physically marked by the city through Boot’s blood on her hands.
FOUR WOMEN- NINA SIMONE
Petry sets up Lutie’s environment as one that is audibly bustling—from the city, to the street, to her squalid apartment—she does not find reprieve in many places throughout the text. It is the same cacophonic quality of the street, however, that fills the space between Lutie and her dreams. This space is full of possibility and is incredibly generative for Lutie and her imagination, like when she imagines the dancing and livelihood that accompanies an upbeat song on the radio (68). This means that putting a close listening ear to Petry’s text reveals how silence is associated with anxiety and looming danger. Solange’s Cranes in the Sky documents a similar plight, one in which the artist is filling her day with mundane tasks to avoid the looming realities that she faces. Josh Kun identifies that same anxiety-filled silence as a facet of mid-20th century Black literature in that it underscored moments of restlessness and reprieve from work (96). Where noise is the backdrop for work, productivity, and upward social mobility—silence, then, is its antithesis. Kun argues that “music creates spaces in which cultures get both contested and consolidated and both sounded and silenced (22). Lutie’s description of the silent casino on page 187 is a poignant example of the revelatory nature of silence—she sees it for what it’s worth, and it’s a hard truth to bear.
CRANES IN THE SKY – SOLANGE
Following the argument that silence denotes inactivity, and a slow death under the pressure of capitalism for the protagonist, it is understandable then that she would find reprieve in her singing gig, because it both filled the silence and hopefully, would result in compensation. Robin D.G. Kelley, reading Paul Gilroy, tells us that “the nighttime became the right time” because it was then that the Black body was celebrated not just as a body to extract labour from, but a celebratory and generative life force. Participating in the activities of the boisterous, musical night time was a life preserving practice for Black folks in the mid-20th century, especially Black women who worked in domestic service, because there were seldom opportunities to hone one’s creative passions outside of the jazz bars and dance clubs. The blackbird sings in the dead of the night, according to The Beatles, and Lutie demonstrates the generative possibility of music in the life of a Black woman with Sisyphean goals.
BLACKBIRD – THE BEATLES
American jazz singer Billie Holiday’s “You Let Me Down,” released in 1935, is about a woman who is rebuffed by her lover, an act which mirrors the betrayal experienced by Lutie as a result of Jim’s infidelity. However, a deeper analysis reveals that the song is actually about systemic racism and oppression. In her novel “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” Angela Davies states that “the birth of blues was aesthetic evidence of new psychosocial realities within the black population” and an effective conduit to expose the evolving complexities of racism.
The allure of material items, or traditional American ideals, typified by words such as “crowns,” “diamonds,” and “wedding gowns” are woven throughout the song and are ultimately exposed and abruptly “let down” by the harsh reality of the “trap” (Lattin 69) of the American Dream. Lutie, a black single mother, is ultimately condemned for her desire to improve her circumstances, mirroring Mrs. Pizzini’s earlier warning about working women (Petry 33) and thus exposing the misogyny embedded in the system. Much like the text’s undertone of resistance, Holiday’s contralto voice, fraught with emotion, gradually reveals itself as an indictment of systemic racism and misogyny. The heaviness in her voice mirrors the disappointment of the reality that the racism pervading dominant white culture has “let us down”. The “us” transcends the woman vaguely described and becomes representative of all those afflicted by racism, especially black women. Lutie is “let down” by the system as her only means of interim liberation is achieved when she murders Boots (Petry 431), or the “anonymous figure,” who becomes a synecdoche for the false hopes of the American way. Just as the snow muffles the sound of the street (Petry 436) in the final moments of the text, the physical order of nature aligns with the stifling of black agency under the oppressive regime of systemic racism and misogyny. This is a phenomenon that mirrors the larger meaning embedded in the “us” in Holiday’s song. In essence, the trappings of the American Dream give Lutie the false perception of progress; however, the “ladder” gradually drops to expose the hopelessness of her plight as a black woman.
“YOU LET ME DOWN”- Billie Holiday
(Mackenzie talks ) “Forgive them Father”
In conclusion, the barriers to which inhibit Lutie from breaking out of this systematic mold of American society, are deemed from not only the geographical physical barrier of the Hudson river, disallowing the attainment of opportunity for herself and Bub, but these barriers are also most prominently portrayed as a deeply rooted system of oppression. Within we thus find and overwhelming presence of racism and misogyny, in leau of attaining the American Dream. A dream that can only be deemed as unattainable by any circumstance due to the colour of Lutie’s skin and the success of the systematic oppression that lives within the city. The inability for upward mobility, the sound of silence as anxiety rather than peace, and the poor representations of black men are all results of this systematic oppression working against the black society, and for the white. It is through these songs, that it can be seen that this system of oppression has carried on, and held on throughout years and years of attempts at equalizing this societal disservice, and that equality has not been reached even still
Song segments included in this educational podcast include:
If I ruled the world – Nas; Four Women- Nina Simone Keep Ya Head Up- Tupac; Billie Holiday 1935 “You Let Me Down”; Living for the City- Stevie Wonder; Blackbird-Beatles; Alexander Hamilton- Lin Manuel Miranda; Cranes in the Sky – Solange; Forgive them father – lauryn hill