In Ann Petry's The Street (1946), Lutie Johnson, estranged from her husband and father, is a single mother, alone and struggling to make a better life for herself and her son, Bub. Lutie is one of the first African American urban heroines, breaking away from the tragic mulatto and other southern woman characters.
From her experience as a suburban domestic, she claims Benjamin Franklin as role model and strives to become a successful self-made American. Her obsession with upward mobility creates independence and self-reliance, yet also aloofness, which hinders her from forming coalitions with neighborhood women. Her independence also prevents her from believing that, as an African American woman, she cannot achieve the American dream. Lutie's constant struggle reveals how capitalism, racism, and sexism are intertwined; yet her hope for a better life reassures her struggle. Although she easily recognizes and confronts racism and attempts to overcome the economic oppression faced daily, as “a good-looking brown girl” she is stumped by the sexism and sexual advances of white and African American men who obstruct her upward mobility and offend her virtuous nature.
When Lutie is faced with attempted rape by an African American man, and forced concubinage to a white slumlord, she responds with violence fueled by rage and frustration. Lutie may be the first African American female character to murder an African American male for participating in her oppression. Yet the violent act only makes Lutie lose self-respect, decide to abandon her son, and give up the struggle.
Adenike Marie Davidson