Ann Petry: Honoring the Author's Legacy During Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and that means exploring the African American experience in a variety of ways. One of the best ways to do so is to read books by African American authors. How better to experience their stories than to hear from the storytellers themselves? If you’re looking for a new book to add to your high school literature class, you will want to check out a book that was published in 1946 and was the first book by a black woman to sell more than 1 million copies: The Street by Ann Petry. 

It’s the story of a single mother raising her son in Harlem in the 1940s, trying to keep him from getting into trouble while also working to keep herself from being exploited by the men around her. It’s a story about ordinary, working-class people who believe in the American Dream struggling to rise up into the middle class while being stymied on all fronts—by racism, sexism, violence, and despair. It’s a story with a lot of resonance today.

The Life of Ann Petry

Petry was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, in 1908. Her father was a pharmacist and her aunt, Anna Louise James, was the first woman pharmacist in Connecticut of any race. Petry also became a pharmacist, graduating from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy in 1931, even though she knew from her earliest years that she wanted to be a writer—a belief fueled by her high school English teacher who, after reading a story of hers out loud to the class, said, “I honestly believe that, if you wanted to, you could become a writer.” 

Ann Petry moved to Harlem when she married. She also worked as a reporter for The New Amsterdam News. She published two short stories in small magazines, and the second one drew the attention of a Houghton Mifflin editor, who encouraged her to apply for the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship. Petry described the feeling she had upon winning it as: “I believed that if I lifted my arms up, I could fly.”

Success of The Street

The Street was a critical success as well as a commercial one. The book was translated into several languages and many articles about Petry were published at the time, including a glossy feature article in Ebony that described the launch party Houghton Mifflin held for her at the Hotel Biltmore in New York City. The event was attended by more than 200 guests, who, according to the magazine, “left convinced that they had participated in a significant event in American literary history.” 

Petry was a private person and didn’t really enjoy the attention, wanting only to live quietly and write. So, she and her family moved back to Connecticut where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Petry published two more novels with HMH—Country Place in 1947 and The Narrows in 1953— and a collection of short stories, Miss Muriel and Other Stories, in 1971. She also published three children’s books with another publisher, Thomas Crowell. Her Tituba of Salem Village would make a good companion for younger classrooms with the HMH classic The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. 

Houghton Mifflin reissued The Street in 1992, and Petry was celebrated by her younger peers such as fellow HMH author Gloria Naylor (whose own novel Mama Day would make a good companion to The Street). Petry and The Street continue to this day to be rediscovered, praised, and deemed worthy of inclusion in our acknowledged list of modern classics.

In 2008 on a segment of National Public Radio’s “You Must Read This” series, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina described discovering The Street when she went looking for a book “that would hold its own against urban classics like Invisible Man or Native Son.” She called it “magnificent” and said it fostered much discussion in her classrooms. This past November, the novelist Tayari Jones sang the book's praises in The New York Times’ “In Praise Of” series, calling The Street her “favorite type of novel, literary with an astonishing plot.” All of which makes it worthy of including on any reading list for a high school English class.

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.