Award-winning author Ann Petry was the first African American woman writer to attain best seller status in the United States. Though born to a family with privileges, she and her sisters were subjected to many incidents of discrimination while growing up black in privileged society. As a child, she remembers being forced to read the parts of illiterate slaves in class to white students.
Faced with a society built on racism and sexism, Petry wrote about her experiences in books like “The Street” in 1946. She tackled feminism and wrote about a young mother struggling to raise her son in Harlem. Then that same year she released “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience,” which was published in the Negro Digest in 1946, where she talked about being kicked off of a local beach by a white racist.
The popularity of Petry’s first novel and articles were so large that she had to move back to her hometown in order to continue writing peacefully.
Though her writings were based in Harlem, Petry’s books were considered part of the Chicago Renaissance. Her themes often surrounded black urban life as a site of hopelessness. Petry would ultimately write four novels and be published in The Amsterdam News, The People’s Voice, and The Crisis. She would earn her pharmacy degree like her father, and teach troubled children in Harlem throughout her career.
Petry’s first and most powerful novel, “The Street” won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, with book sales topping a million copies.