Quotes from The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

The Street (1946) by Ann Petry

Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, The Street, presents the story of a single mother struggling to raise her young son and avoid the dangerous influences surrounding their Harlem apartment. It was the first novel by an African-American woman author to sell over a million copies, and in total, sold more than a million and a half.

The story centers on Lutie Johnson, who copes with racism, sexual harassment, violence, and class divisions in World War II-era New York City. Lutie loves the wisdom of founding father Benjamin Franklin, and believes that if she follows his principles of thrift and hard work, that she can aspire to the American dream.


The story is told through multiple points of view, though mainly taking Lutie’s perspective. She settles for a shabby walk-up apartment in Harlem, since it’s the best she can afford. She aspires above all to be able to move herself and son Bub away from their 116th Street tenement and the cast of characters that she finds aversive, especially the men who feel entitled to her body.

Here are selected quotes from The Street, a raw, engrossing story that still feels quite fresh and engaging. 

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“Her voice had a thin thread of sadness running through it that made the song important, that made it tell a story that wasn’t in the words – a story of despair, of loneliness, of frustration. It was a story that all of them knew by heart and had always known because they had learned it soon after they were born and would go on adding to it until the day they died.”

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Ann Petry

Learn more about Ann Petry

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“I’m young and strong, there isn’t anything I can’t do.”

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“She didn’t have to turn around, anyway; he was staring at her back, her legs, her thighs. She could feel his eyes traveling over her — estimating her, summer her up, wondering about her. As she climbed the last flight of stairs, she was aware that the skin on her back was crawling with fear. Fear of what? she asked herself. Fear of him, fear of the dar, of the smells in the halls, the high steep stairs, of yourself?”

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“The snow fell softly on the street. It muffled sound. It sent people scurrying homeward, so that the street was soon deserted, empty, quiet. And it could have been any street in the city, for the snow laid a delicate film over the sidewalk, over the brick of the tired, old buildings; gently obscuring the grime and the garbage and the ugliness.”

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“Having solved one problem, there was always a new one cropping up to take its place.”

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The Narrows by Ann Petry cover

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“She held the paper in her hand for a long time, trying to follow the reasoning by which that thin ragged boy had become in the eyes of a reporter a ‘burly Negro.’ And she decided that it all depended on where you sat how these things looked. If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like. You couldn’t because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.”

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“Anybody could be rich if he wanted to and worked hard enough and figured it out carefully enough.”

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“And while you were out working to pay the rent on this stinking, rotten place, why, the street outside played nursemaid to your kid. The street did more than that. It became both mother and father and trained your kid for you, and it was an evil father and a vicious mother, and, of course, you helped the street along by talking to him about money.”

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The Street by Ann Petry

The Street by Ann Petry on Amazon

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“Then they were on a four-ply concrete road that wound ahead gray-white in the moonlight. They were going faster and faster. And she got the feeling that Boots Smith’s relationship to this swiftly moving car was no ordinary one. He wasn’t just a black man driving a care at a pell-mell pace. He had lost all sense of time and space as the car plunged forward into the cold, white night.”

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“It’s best that the man do the work when the babies are young. And when the man is young. Not good for the woman to work when she’s young. Not good for the man.”

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“The stillness. It was crouched down in the next booth. It was waiting for her to leave. It would walk down the street with her and into the apartment. Or it might leave the shop when she did, but not go down the street at all, but somehow seep into the apartment before she got there, so that when she opened the door it would be there. Formless. Shapeless. Waiting. Waiting.”

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“‘You know a good-looking girl like you shouldn’t have to worry about money,’ he said softly. She didn’t say anything and he continued, ‘In fact, if you and me can get together a coupla nights a week in Harlem, those lessons won’t cost you a cent. No sir, not a cent.’
      Yes, she thought, if you were born black and not too ugly, this is what you get, this is what you find. It was a pity he hadn’t lived back in the days of slavery, so he could have raided the slave quarters for a likely wench any hour of the day or night.”

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“Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place.”

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“When people are alone, they are always afraid of the dark, she thought. They keep trying to look into the future. There was no way of knowing what threat lurked just beyond tomorrow or the next day, and the not knowing is what makes everyone afraid.”

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Ann Petry photo by Carl Van Vechten

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