Ann Petry (
October 12 1908– April 28 1997) was an African American author.
Ann Lane was born as the youngest of three daughters to Peter Clark Lane and Bertha James Lane in
Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Her parents belonged to the Black minority of the small town. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother was a shop owner, chiropodist, and hairdresser. 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.” Fact|date=February 2007
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, Ann's aunts, worked as maids. The Lane girls were raised sheltered from most of the disadvantages other black people in the
United Stateshad to experience due to the color of their skin; however there were a number of incidents of racial discrimination. She went to school two "years early at the age of 4 with her older sister Helen. On their way home, the two sisters were attacked by some white juveniles with stones. After the girls’ uncles took care of this by threatening the wrongdoers the Lane girls were never bothered again.Fact|date=February 2007
As she wrote in "My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience," published in Negro Digest in 1946, a few years later a racist decided that they did not want her on the 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 Poeshort story " The Gold-Bug".
The strong family bonding was a big support for Ann’s self-esteem. Her well-traveled uncles, who had many stories to tell their nieces when coming home, her ambitious father who overcame racial obstacles when opening his pharmacy in the small town as well as her mother and aunts, set a great example to Ann and Helen to become strong themselves. 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 couldn’t do because they were women.”
The wish to become a professional writer was raised in Ann for the first time in high school when her English teacher read her essay to the class commenting on it with the words: “I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.”
The decision to become a pharmacist was her family’s. She enrolled in college and graduated with a Ph.G. degree from
Connecticut College of Pharmacyin New Havenin 1931 and worked in the family business for several years. She also began to write short stories while she was working at the pharmacy.
On February 22, 1938, she married George D. Petry of
New Iberia, Louisiana. This new commitment brought Petry to New York. She not only write articles for newspapers such as " The Amsterdam News", or " The People’s Voice", and published short stories in The Crisis, but also worked at an after-school program at P.S. 10 in Harlem. It was during this period of her life that she had realized and personally experienced what the black population of the United States had to go through in their everyday life.
Traversing the littered streets of Harlem, living for the first time among large numbers of poor black people, seeing neglected children up close – Petry’s early years in New York inevitably made painful impressions on her. Deeply impacted by her Harlem experiences, Ann Petry was in the possession of the necessary creative writing skills to bring it to paper. Her daughter Liz explains to the "
Washington Post" that “her way of dealing with the problem was to write this book, which maybe was something that people who had grown up in Harlem couldn’t do.”
Her most popular
novel"The Street" was published in 1946 and won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. With "The Street", Petry became the first black woman writer with book sales topping a million copies. [McKay, p. 127]
Back in Old Saybrook in 1947, the writer worked on "Country Place" (1947), "The Narrows" (1953), other stories, and books for children, but they have never achieved the same success as her first book. Until her death Petry lived in an 18th century house in her hometown, Old Saybrook. Ann Lane Petry died at the age of 88 on 28th April 1997. She was outlived by her husband, George Petry, who died in 2000, and her only daughter, Liz Petry.
Condon, Garret “Ann Petry,” Hartford Courant Northeast, 8 November 1992Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1988.
*McKay, Nellie. "Ann Petry's "The Street" and "The Narrows": A Study of the Influence of Class, Race, and Gender on Afro-American Women's Lives." "Women and War". Ed. Maria Diedrich and Dorothea Fischer-Hornung. New York: Berg, 1990.Petry, Elisabeth, ed. Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family’s Letters. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.“English and the Urban Scene,” speech delivered to Hartford Public High school’s English Department and NDEA Institute of Trinity College, March 6, 1969Speech, Wesleyan University, May 12, 1990
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