Academic journal article African American Review

"This Strange Communion": Surveillance and Spectatorship in Ann Petry's the Street

Academic journal article African American Review

"This Strange Communion": Surveillance and Spectatorship in Ann Petry's the Street

Article excerpt

From the time of its publication in 1946, Ann Petry's The Street has inspired comparisons to the work of prominent black male writers, including Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and Ralph Ellison. (1) In the first decades after its publication, especially, The Street was routinely classified as a naturalist novel of the "Richard Wright school." Later waves of critics have resisted thinking of Petry's novel in these terms, however, instead identifying "a more complex structure that expands the boundaries of the traditional naturalistic novel" (McKay 127). These more recent critical accounts have focused on Petry's feminist concerns, as well as specific thematic elements of the text, such as its recurrent allusions to Benjamin Franklin, conjuring, and the blues. (2)

This critical work has been vital to producing an understanding of how Petry's work stands apart from that of the black male writers by whom she was so long overshadowed. Yet, now that Petry's distinctive gifts have been acknowledged and her originality of thought and expression has been appropriately credited, I want to suggest that there is good to be gained by once more placing Petry's first novel in relationship to the work of Wright and Ellison. (3) Indeed, I believe that even briefly turning to their fiction illuminates a central concern within The Street that has never been addressed: namely, the dynamics of spectatorship and surveillance that animate the racist social formation of Harlem. Placing Petry in relation to her male literary forebears in these terms will serve to underscore further the degree to which she was an innovator, breaking new ground for the black feminist writers who have come after her.

In Wright's Native Son, of course, vision and failures of vision serve as a central trope for the racial animosity that has spawned Bigger Thomas's homicidal consciousness. In particular, Mrs. Dalton, the blind mother of Bigger's first victim, serves as a figure for the blindness of both blacks and whites to the complexities of racism. Bigger spells out Mrs. Dalton's symbolic function explicitly, reflecting that "a lot of people were like Mrs. Dalton, blind..."(107). At a critical moment of epiphany, Bigger suddenly understands the ideological apparatus that has shackled him in similar terms: "He felt that [his family] wanted and yearned to see life in a certain way; they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others were doing if that doing did not fit their own desires" (106). Again and again Wright returns to the idea that the blacks and whites in his text blunder forward, uns eeing, toward fates that have been predetermined by power dynamics that render their environment as invisibly lethal as a minefield. (4) Twelve years after the publication of Wright's novel, Ralph Ellison would produce a brilliant meditation on racism in Invisible Man, and once again the experience of not being seen served as a central metaphor for the effects of American racism.

While it is clear that a metaphorics of vision is central to the projects of both Wright and Ellison, virtually no notice has been given to the similar centrality of the ocular to Petry's own highly influential depiction of twentieth-century race relations. Wright and Ellison figured the power dynamics of race as matters of blindness and invisibility, respectively; Petry, on the other hand, depicts the dynamics of 1940s' Harlem in terms of visibility and, more particularly, in terms of looking and watching. At a number of key moments in The Street, which is set in Harlem in the 1940s, her characters attempt to articulate their experience of what E. Ann Kaplan calls the "imperial gaze." (5) In a crucial early scene Lutie, The Street's protagonist, for instance, struggles to explain to her eight-year-old son Bub "'why ... white people want colored people shining shoes'" (71). …

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