Ann Petry’s Clear-Eyed Inspection of Black Pain

There is a pervasive mythology—or perhaps “oversimplification” is the appropriate term—of Black life in the United States, in which the South, understood to be the epicenter of American racism, is molasses slow in ideology, movement, and progress. On the other hand, the North (particularly its cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) represents upward mobility, progress, and freedom from the bondage that created African Americans. Of course, the history of both North and South is far more nuanced than that, and the current Black Lives Matter movement—which evolved following high-profile police killings in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland—provides contemporary evidence counter to this line of thinking.

Miss Muriel and Other Stories is a painstakingly complex look at African American life since the 1940s. Instead of relying on well-versed tropes about the “backwardness” of our country cousins and “slick” city dwellers, Ann Petry creates a loosely interwoven world of Black folks striving to make the best of often devastating circumstances. Petry shows no contempt or preference on the basis of class; she gazes upon her people with a reverence and respect that may leave some readers surprised to learn that the author was born into a successful family in a largely white Connecticut suburb. (1)

Petry’s loving portrayal of her subjects doesn’t mean that Miss Muriel is a cheery read. Her clear-eyed inspection of Black pain finds some of the book’s tales ending with a gut-punching plot twist, or a resolution that reminds us that optimism about racial justice is as hard to summon now as it was when she first began this volume. “The Witness” is particularly brutal, detailing the choking nature of the good ole-fashioned Northern racism that finds an elderly school teacher unable to protect a young white girl (and himself) from a diabolical group of white teen boys. The Harlem uprising that follows a police killing in “In Darkness and Confusion” invokes famous images of similar protests that have haunted the United States since the early twentieth century; at the center of the melee is a working-class couple who are pushed to the edge when their beloved son’s future takes a grim turn. Petry has said that she was inspired by events she witnessed while living in Harlem in 1943. (2)

“Like a Winding Sheet” briefly explores how the complications of racism haunt many Black women via partners who come home weary from the ways of the white world to take out their frustrations on dutiful wives and girlfriends. A cruel beating is the denouement to the protagonist’s humiliating day at work, as he strikes out at the very person who allows him to rest his weary head on her shoulders.

However, it should be noted that racial strife is not at the center of every tale in this, Petry’s sole volume of short stories. Originally published as separate stories between 1945 and 1971, it is likely only the second volume of short stories ever to be published by an African American woman. The lengthy saga from which the book takes its name is narrated by a twelve-year-old protagonist who, as the author did in her own youth, works in her family’s pharmacy. Her observations about a single, strong-willed aunt who has a career and her choice of (underwhelming) suitors are a subtle nod to a feminist worldview that has been both cited and dismissed by critics of the author’s best-known work.

Petry, of course, would quickly rise to international fame when her 1946 novel The Street, with more than one million copies sold and translated into no less than four languages, outperformed any previous work of fiction by a Black woman writer. Unlike some of her more flamboyant peers (Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes among them), she was disinterested in the attention that accompanied her success and lived a very private life.

Miss Muriel adds more tenor to questions that surely have haunted fans of her novels: Had she not been divorced from the spotlight, might there have been more work in her catalogue? Would there have been decades separating the original 1971 publication of this volume, its 1999 reissue, and this book you hold in your hands?

Black women’s voices matter, yet they are often silenced, ignored, or relegated to the margins of popular discourse. And, as the results of the recently concluded 2016 U.S. presidential election remind us, Black women are (more often than not) a moral compass that should be trusted or, at the very least, viewed as worthy of our attention. Some eight decades after Ann Petry penned the first words that would make their way into Miss Muriel, let us give her the audience she deserves.

  1. Farrah Jasmine Griffin, “Ann Petry,” Harvard Magazine, January–February 2014; accessed December 17, 2016, http://harvardmagazine.com/2014/01/ann-petry.
  2. A Yemisi Jimoh, “Ann Lane Petry: Miss Muriel and Other Stories,” The Literary Encyclopedia, first published October 25, 2002: accessed December 30, 2016, http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php? rec=true&UID=3567.

Jamilah Lemieux is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in a host of venues, including Mic, EbonyThe Nation, the Washington Post, the New York TimesThe GuardianGawker, and her now-defunct award-winning blog, The Beautiful Struggler.

From Miss Muriel and Other Stories by Ann Petry, published by Northwestern University Press. Foreword copyright © 2017 by Jamilah Lemieux.

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