The Street portrays the economic plight of African Americans in Northern cities. Themes of the novel include the problem of latchkey children, single parenting, and sexual oppression. This novel is perhaps the first written by an African American woman that probes the triple threat to African American women of race, gender, and class.
Much of the action of The Street takes place on 116th Street in Harlem in 1944. The central character, Lutie Johnson, leaves an unemployed womanizing husband and a nice frame house in Jamaica, New York. She moves to Harlem with her eight-year-old son, Bub. Lutie moves to the city to realize a comfortable life. Instead of an independent and prosperous life in New York City, Lutie finds herself living in a tenement. The janitor, William Jones, is a sociopath who lusts after Lutie. A major presence on the street is Mrs. Hedges, who runs a whorehouse. Qualified for clerical or secretarial employment, Lutie can find only menial work in a laundry. Instead of ownership of a piece of the American Dream, Lutie finds herself trapped in a nightmare.
Lutie becomes fair game for males. William makes advances and tries to molest Lutie. Junto, the white business partner of Mrs. Hedges, tries to seduce Lutie. Boots Smith, a musician in a bar that Junto owns, charms Lutie with visions of a better life with him. Boots lures her to his apartment, where he attempts to rape her. In an effort to ward off Boots’s rape, Lutie kills him. Vowing revenge on Lutie, William tricks Bub into stealing and gets him in trouble with the law. Disillusioned and defeated, Lutie abandons Bub and runs away to Chicago.
Sexual politics drive the novel and rest on a concept that African American women are sexual prey. Negative sexual imagery of Lutie and by extension of all African American women is held by black and white males and by white females. A mixture of race and gender politics pushes Lutie over the edge. Lutie represents all the walking wounded of 116th Street and all of Harlem’s downtrodden residents. The Street is not merely a graphic portrayal of what it means to be female and to be poor; it is also a story of protest and defeat. The Street presents the African American woman as the center of the family and the community. She shoulders the moral responsibilities of the race.