Ann Petry (October 12, 1908 – April 28, 1997) was an American writer of novels, short stories, children’s books, and journalism. Her 1946 debut novel The Street became the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies.
In 2019, the Library of America published a volume of her work containing The Street as well as her 1953 masterpiece, The Narrows, and a few shorter pieces of non-fiction.
Ann, born Anna Houston Lane, was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut was the youngest of three daughters to Peter Clark Lane and Bertha James Lane. Her parents belonged to the black minority, numbering 15 inhabitants of the small town. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother, a shop owner, chiropodist, and hairdresser. Ann was also the niece of Anna Louise James.
Ann and her sister were raised “in the classic New England tradition: a study in efficiency, thrift, and utility. They were filled with ambitions that they might not have entertained had they lived in a city along with thousands of poor blacks stuck in demeaning jobs.”
The family had none of the trappings of the middle class until Petry was well into adulthood. Before her mother became a businesswoman, she worked in a factory, and her sisters worked as maids. The Lane girls were raised sheltered from most of the disadvantages other black people in the United States had to experience due to the color of their skin. However, there were a number of incidents of racial discrimination.
As Petry wrote in “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience”, published in Negro Digest in 1946, there was an incident where a racist decided that they did not want her on a beach. Her father wrote a letter to The Crisis in 1920 or 1921 complaining about a teacher who refused to teach his daughters and his niece. Another teacher humiliated her by making her read the part of Jupiter, the illiterate ex-slave in the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Gold-Bug”.
Petry had a strong family foundation with well-travelled uncles, who had many stories to tell her when coming home; her father, who overcame racial obstacles, opened a pharmacy in the small town; and her mother and aunts set a strong example: Petry, interviewed by The Washington Post” in 1992, says about her tough female family members that, “It never occurred to them that there were things they could not do because they were women.’’
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