According to a recent Justice Department report, more than half the juvenile offenders in state institutions have had family members in jail. Does crime run in the genes? No, it runs in our neighborhoods, as Ann Petry revealed in this ghetto tragedy first published in 1946. In The Street, Lutie Johnson is young, attractive, and black, with a son to raise. A native daughter, she wants her piece of the dream. But racism, poverty, and the universal assumption that black women are sexual fair game thwart her at every turn. While she’s at work, her son’s on the Harlem streets with neighbors so cowed or corrupted they can’t wait to bring him down. He’ll wind up in reform school. His mother skips town on a murder rap.
Petry’s compassion for the lowest rung of life, her clear vision of the ghetto as a place where people vent on each other the rage they bring home from white America, and above all the portrait of Lutie, with her courage, harsh humor, wisps of inherited wisdom, and towering, tragic grief, make this novel worth a thousand statistical surveys on inner-city crime, 1940 or 1990. That so little has changed since she wrote is our shame. A