ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina teaches literature at Dartmouth College. In our series You Must Read This, she tells us why a book that she discovered decades ago and teaches in her classes still has resonance today.
Professor GRETCHEN HOLBROOK GERZINA (Dartmouth College): Twenty years ago, when I was a young professor about to teach a course on African-American fiction, I set about to find a forgotten or undiscovered classic by a woman writer. I wanted a book that would hold its own against such urban classics as "Invisible Man" or "Native Son," an older book that would complement the newer works by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker or the recently republished novels of Zora Neale Hurston. What I discovered was Ann Petry's magnificent 1946 novel "The Street".
Described by some as an urban "To Kill a Mockingbird," minus any redemption and hope, "The Street" tells the story of Lutie Johnson and her 8-year-old son during the last years of the Second World War.
Lutie is a young, hard-working single mother in urban America trying to get ahead in a world that ignores and exploits her. I saw her struggles and determination as both inspiring and doomed. In striving to provide for her son's future, she often ignored his immediate needs and fears.
This book shook me so much that whenever I taught it in class, later that night I would slip into my sleeping sons' bedrooms to watch them and make silent promises. Even now, whenever I finish it, I calculate how old the main character's son would be and wonder what sort of life he had. I care deeply about these characters. They are real to me.
This book creates a lot of discussion, often uncomfortable, in my literature classes. It makes us confront difficult questions about race and class. Who has access to the American Dream? Why do some characters make it but Lutie doesn't? Petry wants her readers to see the two sides of America, the gleaming and moneyed suburbs, where she herself was raised, and the struggles of black women in Harlem where she moved after her marriage.
"The Street" is a book that raises passion in readers, and in me. It is as relevant today as when it was written in the 1940s. Particularly now, with the upcoming presidential election, it makes us think about what it was like to be a single mother raising a black son to believe he was worthy of all the best this country can offer. I can't think of a better place to start a national discussion about the audacity of hope than with this undiscovered classic, as fresh and moving now as the day it was published.
SIEGEL: Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is a professor of literature at Dartmouth College. She is also the author of "Mr. and Mrs. Prince", how an extraordinary 18th century family moved out of slavery and into legend.
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