Race is clearly the main obstacle for Lutie and Bub. It is what holds them back from leaving ?the street?. Born into prejudice, they are basically prescribed a future. The three characters which best represent the victimization of African-Americans and women are Bub, Lutie, and Min. The main obstacle facing Lutie is obviously the color of her skin. This prevented her from being able to advance the way she wanted to.
The fact that Lutie is a woman contributes to her struggle even further. Women have to deal with male dominance and being victimized by men, in addition to being a minority. Both Lutie and Min try to break free these constraints, but ultimately fail because the task lies deeper than within themselves. This story is a perfect example of the struggles African-Americans, and in particular, women, have to endure, and a perfect illustration of the vicious cycle that keeps them unable to achieve the lives that they wanted and worked so hard for. There was a force that was keeping African-Americans on the street, and according to Ann Petry’s views, it was the system in which they were living.
Lutie is faced with being a single parent. She must provide child care as well as earn money to keep her and her son alive. Her life is a double edged sword, because she needs to be at home and working at the same time: an impossible task. Because of these two factors and the invisible barriers they pose, it is impossible for Lutie to achieve the life she desires for herself and Bub. In the beginning of the story, Lutie was forced to take action and support her family because Jim could not find a job.
She left her family and home and sent all her earnings to support them. In that time, it was hard enough for a woman to get a job, let alone an African-American woman. Petry contests that the most available job to them, was being a maid. Lutie was able to get a job working for the Chandlers. The portrayal of the Chandlers was a clear illustration of the racial divides at the time. Lutie was awestruck when she saw the lifestyle that they led.
The luxuries they had would never be accessible to someone like Lutie. Although she admires their lifestyle, she loathes the impact money has on them. When Jonathan Chandler killed himself, it was then she realized that money was the only thing that this family had. She was interested in the way which money transformed a suicide she had seen committed from start to finish in front of her very eyes into an accident with a gun(Petry 54).
It was then that she began to despise the family. The fact that African-Americans were dependent on whites for employment made it hard for them to ever be on the same level. They were dependent on the white race essentially, to live. The increasing dependence made it more difficult to ever overcome the dominance. The knowledge of this is what angers Lutie. Mom, why do white people want colored people shining shoes?(Petry 71).
Deep down, she knew that no matter how hard she worked, she would never live the way they did. But she did not want the racist mind to bring her down. She began to blame the white race for the hardships she was enduring. I don’t know, Bub, she said finally. But its for the same reason we can’t live anywhere else but in places like this.
. . (Petry 72). She wanted to escape the street, and made a great effort.
. . . They’d never catch her in their dirt trap. .
. She’d fight her way out(Petry74). But later we learn that this resolve is to no avail. Lutie wanted Bub to have a better life and rise above the street.
She worked very hard to provide this for him. She could do it, too- bring him up so that he would be a fine, strong man(Petry 72). There is a double standard here, though. Lutie, raising Bub, alone was responsible for all aspects of Bub’s life as well as her own. Many times Bub was forced to stay home alone because they could not afford a baby-sitter. This is evidence that the home is where the cycle of victimization hits the most.
Bub is left home alone some nights, forced to care for himself. He realizes that his mother needs to work, so he attempts to be strong, but at the same time, he feels neglected. He was often frightened at night, and slept with the lights on to give him comfort. Those nights he lay awake in bed, trying to figure out a way he could earn money to help his mother.
It occurred to him that she wouldn’t mind the light being on if he could figure out some way of earning money so that he could help pay the electric bill(Petry 219). Lutie needs a job because she is a single mother and must support herself and Bub. The irony is that she is also supposed to be the caretaker and cannot find a balance, so Bub, fatherless, spent many nights alone forced to take care of himself. In order to break the mold of the stereotypical African-American, Bub needs more attention in the home, and because she needs to support them, Lutie cannot be there to stop the pattern of victimization that he is falling into. Instead, Bub turned to Jones, who manipulated him for his own evil intentions. Bub is perhaps the most innocent of victims.
He was never given the opportunity to explore his full potential, and one could attribute this to many factors. In school, he was unable to get an education that would provide him with the knowledge to advance himself. In school, Bub was also a victim of the racist system. The school system was not designed to give African-American children any room for advancement. We are shown the point of view of the teacher.
. . . she came to think of the accumulation of scents in her classroom with hate as _the colored people’s smell, and then finally the smell of Harlem itself-bold, strong, lusty, and frightening ( Petry 328).
The teacher has such a disdain for the children, there is no possible way she can pass on to them any type of knowledge that may be able to save them from the street. Ironically, it is because he was set up that Bub winds up falling into the trap of young African-American males, ending up in juvenile hall, not because of the fact he knew he was committing a crime. This is particularly ironic because Lutie did succeed at raising Bub the way she wanted; however, because of the circumstances, she was never able to know the whole story of how he ended up falling victim to Jones’ evil scheme. Outwardly, it appears as if Bub has fallen into a life of juvenile delinquency, but only Jones and the reader know this not to be true. Ann Petry used this illustration to get the point across that the innocent are the victims. Another character that is a victim is Min.
Min plays the role of the African-American woman who has played the victim to many men. Her relationship with Jones is not loving or nurturing at all. We learn that Min has had relationships like this in the past. It was the same thing with various husbands she had had. They had taken her money and abused her and given her nothing in return, but she was never the one who left (Petry 127). She gains the strength to stand up to Jones after seeing the Prophet David.
This gives her a sense of security, and she feels that now it is she who has control over Jones, to a certain extent. We are led to believe that it is because of security that Min stays with Jones. Min knew the chances of a woman surviving alone on the street were slim. No, a woman living alone really didn’t stand much chance. .
. With a man around there was big change in their attitude(Petry 371). When she is finally able to break free, her future is left ambiguous. We will never know if she fell back in to the cycle, and found another man who would victimize her, or if she actually grew to be strong and independent.
Given the circumstance, it’s hard to believe that she could actually overcome. We are also led to believe that she has already set her eyes on a new man- the man who helped her move. He was a very strong man. His back muscles bulged as he pushed the cart. She moved closer to him.
_Say,_ she said, and there was soft insinuation in her voice, _you know anywhere a single lady could get a room?_ Then she added hastily, _But not on this street. _ (Petry 371). Clearly, it is not possible for these characters to overcome these obstacles that they face, because the problems are on a deeper level than just the individuals themselves. Petry uses this novel as a clear cut illustration of how the system is not allowing its constituents to advance in their lives. These issues- poverty, racism and -needed to be addressed the institutions before it was possible for them to be able to break this vicious cycle.
This novel is a powerful portrayal of just how hard it was to get off the street. Perhaps Lutie’s thoughts at the end of the book sum this concept up best, Lutie tried to figure out by what twists and turns of fate she had landed on this train. Her mind balked at the task. All she could think was, it was that street. It was that god-damned street (Petry436).