Ann Petry was an accomplished African American author and pharmacist who broke barriers in the literary world with her first novel, The Street.
Published in 1946, The Street became the first book written by an African American woman to sell over one million copies and cemented Petry’s place in history as a trailblazer in both the literary and African American communities.
Ann Petry was born on October 12, 1908, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to a family of pharmacists. Her father owned a drugstore, and Petry’s early exposure to the world of medicine and literature laid the foundation for her future career as a pharmacist and author. After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in pharmacy, Petry worked in her family’s drugstore and eventually opened her own pharmacy in Harlem, New York.
It was in Harlem where Petry began to see the harsh realities of poverty and racism first-hand, experiences that would later influence her writing. In the 1930s and 1940s, Harlem was a hub of cultural and political activity, with artists, writers, and activists coming together to challenge the status quo. Petry was part of this community, and her own experiences as a black woman in America, combined with her observations of the lives of others in Harlem, provided the inspiration for The Street.
The Street tells the story of Lutie Johnson, a single mother living in Harlem who is struggling to raise her son and make ends meet. The novel is a powerful depiction of the challenges faced by African Americans in the mid-20th century, including poverty, racism, and sexism. Through Lutie’s story, Petry explores the effects of these societal ills on individuals and communities, showing how they can be both oppressive and empowering at the same time.
The Street was an instant success, receiving critical acclaim and commercial success. Petry’s powerful writing style, combined with her unique perspective as an African American woman, resonated with readers, and the novel quickly became a bestseller. With its publication, Petry became the first African American woman to sell over one million copies of a book, a remarkable achievement that cemented her place in literary history.
Petry continued to write throughout her life, producing several more novels, including Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1953), as well as a number of short stories and essays. Although her later works did not achieve the same level of commercial success as The Street, they nonetheless earned her critical acclaim and cemented her legacy as one of the most important African American writers of the 20th century.
In addition to her writing, Petry was also a prominent activist and advocate for social justice. Throughout her life, she spoke out against racial and gender inequality, and her works continue to be relevant today, serving as powerful reminders of the ongoing struggles for justice and equality in America.