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The "Walking Wounded": Rethinking Black Women's Identity in Ann Petry's The Street
It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
--W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
--Paul Laurence Dunbar, "We Wear The Mask"
"Face," writes Gloria Anzaldua, "is the surface of the body that is the most noticeably inscribed by social structures, marked with instructions on how to be mujer, macho, working class, Chicana. As mestizas--biologically and/or culturally mixed--we have different surfaces for each [End Page 849] aspect of identity, each inscribed by a particular subculture. We are 'written' all over, or should I say, carved and tattooed with the sharp needles of experience" (xv). Here, Anzaldua speaks of the body as a patchwork of integral parts, a maze of topographical signifiers that represent the intimate aspects of our identity. This is the landscape through which we view our human experience.
In this essay, I will probe the social landscape of the body in Ann Petry's The Street, paying particular attention to the ways in which the body--as material substance--interacts with other social structures. "The more we understand about the body," writes Paula Cooey, "the more we understand about the role it plays as object of and vehicle for the social construction of reality [. . .]" (5). To this end, Cooey proposes that we think of the body as "a battleground for mapping human values as these are informed by relations of and struggles for power" (9). Encompassing conceptions of the body posited by Anzaldua and Cooey, Melvin Dixon reminds us in Ride Out The Wilderness that "images of physical and spiritual landscapes [. . .] reveal over time a changing topography in black American quests for selfhood [. . .]. Images of land and the conquest of identity serve as both a cultural matrix among various texts and a distinguishing feature of Afro-American literary history" (xi). A close examination of Petry's novel reveals how these notions of selfhood, identity and landscape shape our understanding of the body as these same properties also frame a context for understanding African American female subjectivity in the urban setting. Considered by some to be a poor imitation of Richard Wright's Native Son, Petry's novel has been critically eclipsed by what Bernard Bell calls the misrepresentation of her talent. "Whether valid or not," Bell concludes, "these critical views do not adequately express the complexity and distinctiveness of Ann Petry's aesthetic vision and achievement" (105). This "aesthetic vision" includes, in my estimation, a substantive focus on the body as text. Petry presents an array of women who have, by some degree or another, been traumatized or "tattooed" by their experience in the city. Petry herself is quoted as saying her characters are the "walking wounded" ("Ann Petry" 253); they are marked, I argue, by the prejudices of race, class, and gender, and bruised by the many systems of oppression that relegate them to poverty, obscurity, and even death. I will explore the figurative and literal boundaries of these wounds, suggesting alternative ways to [End Page 850] view the subtle and not so subtle ways women are examined or perceived through the veil of bodily (im)perfection. In finding those places of refuge and regeneration Dixon so clearly articulates in his study, I too hope that my explorations of place and space will lead to "the discovery and the performance of identity" (xi) as seen in Petry's novel.
A crowd of people surged in to the Eighth Avenue express at 59th Street. By elbowing other passengers in the back...