Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog


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This sort of touches on the point of my last post, about the duties of activist academics, or allies to a particular cause of activism. I say allies specifically to denote folks who are not in fact members of the group for which the cause strives to aid. That is, non-female women’s rights activists and people of the sort. In the case of this class, it would be allies for black women’s rights. I am neither black nor female, but would like to consider myself an ally toward this cause. As such, there are certain things, which we touched on in class, which an ally must do to ensure that they are being helpful and not inadvertently problematic. I must say I agree with our professor: in our class discussions we have done an impressive job of engaging in dialog without othering the writers. That is a very difficult thing to avoid, but one that is crucial. It is easy to avoid deliberately othering a person, it is as simple as not condemning them as an outsider. The more subtle, more risky othering, which I think we avoid as well, is exalting them for being who they are, which is alienating in itself. This is a position I think a lot of people default to, thinking that it is the opposite of condemnation and is therefore the ideal perspective. But it is actually exclusionary in a different way: placing the writer on a pedestal and away from the collective “us.” (I’m in a social-justice theatre group that did a visual representation of this form of othering, wherein a student stood on a tall chair and tried to get down to join those on the floor around them, but was hemmed in and unable to do so. It was, I think, a very effective visual representation of this action.) Yet another issue we face is the issue of claimed authenticity, which we discussed in class as the instance of someone asserting their membership in a group because of their knowledge of that subject. It would be like me saying “I know how you feel,” to a woman or a person of a different ethnicity. I don’t, and even if I’m supportive I can’t make the claim that I can feel what they’ve experience. (Similarly, I’d be a bit irked if someone–particularly of the “big five” major religions–said they knew how I felt as an Asatruar. It’s a polite sentiment, but they don’t know. Just like I don’t know, on an emotional level, what they’ve experienced.) In short: I think it is the role of the ally to acknowledge that they are just that, an ally: a supportive and active individual who wants to help a group of people of whom they are not a part. Not condemn nor exalt them, simply help to make their unique, individual voices as audible as everyone’s should be. This is a bit of repetition, I’ll admit, from my first post, but I think the class’ discussion of different varieties of othering an author was something I very much wanted to touch upon in today’s post.

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naturalism in The Street

What with a brief description of Ann Petry’s life and of naturalism in class today, I started to think about the effectiveness of naturalism as the vehicle in which Petry drives her agenda.

 

I wondered about the ideas that naturalist works of literature promote – namely, the lack of free will and the notion that a person’s character relies entirely on genes and the environment. Petry, who obviously wanted to enlighten readers as to the plight of black women, will have wanted to acquire sympathy and awareness concerning the grim living conditions in Harlem – and that, I believe, she absolutely achieves. It’s hard to read The Street and not feel claustrophobic when reading about the cramped, urine-stained rooms or William’s obsessive advances.

 

The determinist approach of naturalism, and the lack of free will that comes with it, seems to come down to the oppressors. That is, I don’t think of The Street’s determinism as cosmic, as universal, or as some kind of natural law – Petry, I think, wants us to see it as emphatically circumstantial and the consequence of racism. Free will can’t be exercised, because freedom isn’t allowed for the black characters of the novel.

 

Freedom is stripped from them even further with notion of being the sum of nature and nurture. Genetically, they are black – that they cannot change, despite knowing how much better they’d fare with white skin. Their social environments only promote racism – to the point that they internalize it, that they learn to be accustomed to a lower quality of life than the rest. Menial jobs and residency in squalor are to be expected.

 

I think these evident messages of how limited the characters are, works incredibly well in creating that repetitive toll of bad experiences – ones that the reader can’t escape and must acknowledge, giving in to the reality of the hopelessness of these characters’ circumstances. The awareness of injustice that Petry drives home is of great value and is best brought out by pessimistic, cul-de-sac naturalism.

 

However, I’ve been thinking about Martin Luther King considering the recent MLKD, and I’ve also been thinking about Gloria Yamato’s ‘Something About the Subject Makes It Hard to Name’. King and Yamato seem to hold that agency still holds hope or light, even if it is weak light. King’s ‘dream’ notoriously revolutionized America and Yamato’s belief is that by actively fighting racism, there will be an ‘inevitable end of racism’. I guess what it all really boils down to is whether optimism or pessimism as best at activating the desire to diminish racism. Question mark.


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Taking the bait – pondering more on Lutie’s agency…

After our discussion in class today, I started to pay more attention to the different facets of Lutie’s agency in dealing with Boots.  Many of Lutie’s reactions to Boots showed a definite possession of agency; though she knows she desperately “swallows [his bait] whole,” she handles him on her own time (151).  When he approaches her at the bar, she deliberates the consequences of answering him before even talking to him – she knows what she’s getting into by engaging him.  Even while getting into his car, acknowledges that it’s a game she must manipulate in order to get the best possible outcome for herself.  As David pointed out, she actively wrangles her way out of kissing him and walks away before he can try to give her the goodnight kiss she knows he wants – little ways of getting power over him.  Lutie is determined to use Boots: “she could do it and she would” …but knows it won’t be easy (166; 152).

However, though she is able to exercise agency in dealing within her dealings with Boots, the novel shows that she clearly felt trapped in choosing to talk to him (hello, naturalist literature).  She takes Boots’ bait because she knows that having money is the only way she and Bub will be able to get off the street: “What she wanted she wanted so badly that she decided to gamble to get it” (152).  Lutie knows Boots is trouble, often comparing him to a predatory animal, but will risk being his prey anyway. Furthermore, as several people pointed out today, Lutie has finally become desperate enough to turn to less “dignified” work – work that relies on using her appearances to make money.

It was interesting to talk about Lutie’s agency in class, but despite the fact that she takes an active role in going toward what she wants, she’s pretty much caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s hard for even her to tell if her small amount of agency counts: “The walls had beaten her or she had beaten the walls. Whichever way she cared to look at it”  (150).


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Min’s point of view

I was really happy that Petry decided to give us Min’s point of view, after Jones had such negative, violent thoughts about her. At the beginning, when she was introduced by Lutie as being “part of the furniture,” and when she didn’t really speak (just in whispers to the dog), I assumed that she wouldn’t play a large role in the novel. Especially once Jones got it set in his mind that he would kick Min out, I really thought that she would leave the book and we would never get to know her further. I’m glad that I was wrong. 

Our discussion in class today moved towards Min’s past “husbands.” It really got me thinking about her stance on men. Yes, she states that she is only using Jones for a free place to stay and the ability to save up money for dentures and other things that she sees and decides to purchase. It seems as though she has gotten comfortable in this way of life, and the thought of ever leaving it scares her. The past men that she lived with seem to have served the same purpose for Min, she strictly needed a companion, for it was too expensive to live on her own. However, she never has these thoughts about the actual husband, who she hasn’t seen in 25 years. 

This got me thinking that perhaps Min and Lutie have a little more in common than we thought before. Lutie loved her husband when they first got married, but their relationship began to diminish, and he eventually left her. Something tells me that Min had the same kind of loving relationship with her first husband, and something just went wrong in the end. Perhaps this is the seed to her inability to enter into romantic relationships with men, and this is why she lives with them so that she has a place to be, until she can’t handle them anymore. It seems that everybody in this book has some kind of past, and I don’t think that Min is an exception. Something caused her to begin this string of unhealthy relationships with men, and I feel that it could very easily have been her marriage. 


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In Defense of Min

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When I was doing the reading for today’s class, Min’s chapter came as a breath of fresh air to me. Previously in the novel every character had lived up to or beneath their respective stereotype. The Chandlers are racist, prim, proper and soulless. They are dehumanized not only to Lutie, but also to the reader by their treatment of their son and especially by the portrayal and fallout of the Christmas day suicide. Lutie’s husband is unable to get a job and eventually succumbs to drink and infidelity. Lutie’s father is a bootlegging drunk, who ruins the Johnson’s ability to meek out a meager existence. And finally, Jones, the Supe, is the sex-crazed animal that Lutie fears him to be upon their first meeting.

Min is set up to be just another stereotype. At first, Min is invisible to Lutie, and when Lutie finally sees Min she describes her as shapeless and notes that the table is “the kind of big ugly furniture white women love to give their maids” and that it is almost certainly hers. Even the supe, looks at Min with disgust and refuses to acknowledge how much he needs her. But, when we finally do get a chapter from Min’s perspective (after Lutie and Jones get their own chapters) she pleasantly defies expectations.

Min is the first character in the novel who doesn’t seem to be crushed by Petry’s Naturalism. She has clear goals in mind and is able to exploit her situation in such a way that makes attaining those goals possible. While, admittedly, her goals are low compared to Lutie’s (all she really wants is to stay with Jones and buy a set of dentures) and her means of achieving them are living with an abusive partner and secretly saving money, at least she is working towards something solid and achievable, as opposed to Lutie whose nebulous goal of “get off the street” and her even more nebulous methosds of achieving this are “maybe take another public service exam” or “hang around with strange men who claim to be able to get you singing jobs”. Not to mention the Supe’s goal of “Trick Lutie into sleeping with me”. In her sole chapter not only does Min define her goal, but she takes active steps to make it happen, makes significant progress, and is genuinely happy with the progress she makes. And the table Min owns, which Lutie dismissed as a sign of white oppression, is actually a source of power, allowing her to save money in its secret drawer.

Min is by no means perfect and I’m sure that Min’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it was nice to see a character in The Street who had agency in her life and hadn’t been made completely cynical by his or her surroundings.


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The naturalism we looked at today makes me question the actual social change that can occur as a result of such a pessimistic viewpoint. If the entire book is beating into us the impossibility of social/economic mobility, then how can we finish the story and feel anything but trapped ourselves? Increased awareness of the world is always a plus, but there don’t seem to be many options open to readers for easing the situations.

Today, from historical distance, we read the book as a valuable insight into the situations of many black women of Ann Petry’s time period, but it is difficult to ascertain what might have driven readers toward The Street when it was first published. Readers – especially white readers – might have read the book simply for the racial touristic experience (the same racial tourism that we are trying to steer away from in class- one of DuSilles’s no-no’s). I think especially of some of those early book covers we saw with Lutie in provocative clothing. Come hither, read this book of a black woman’s struggle in the seedy world of Harlem (that place you wouldn’t dare to go in real life). I’m worried The Street might have been more of a guilty pleasure than an eye-opening reading experience.

My point, I guess, is perhaps readers were participating in the same objectification of the black woman that Petry seems to be highlighting/critiquing in her book. It is also possible that Lutie’s new dalliance with Boots might only reaffirm some of the stereotypes people held/hold, because suddenly, despite all her hard and honest work, she’s hoping to gain money with her body. Naturalism assumes she has to do this. Naturalism assumes a trap. But what if there are other options?