Race, Racism and Violence in Ann Petry’s 'The Witness'

From Miss Muriel and Other Stories

Term Paper, 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Ann Petry- An African American Writer (based on Holladay17ff)

3. Miss Muriel and Other Stories- “The Wheeling Stories”

4. Summary of Ann Petry’s The Witness

5. Analysis of The Witness

6. Conclusion

7. Sources

1. Introduction

To introduce my term paper “Race and Violence in Ann Petry’s The Witness” I want to start with the definitions of the three terms race, racism and violence mentioned in the title. Regarding to the expressions I want to say something about the U.S. history, and about the current situation in the United States of America, with reference to the African American people.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary explains race as follows: “one of the main groups that humans can be divided into according to their physical differences, for example the colour of their skin; a group of people who share the same language, history, culture, etc.”[1]

Racism means “the unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race; violent behaviour towards them; the belief that some races of people are better than others”[2]

The history of racism in the United States of America goes back to 17th century and should have come to an end with the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the abolition of slavery (1865). Unfortunately, the abolition of slavery was not the end of the African American martyrdom. It was the beginning of prejudices, discrimination, violence and struggle. When we think of racism against African American people, we think of a long and torturous way African Americans had to go and still go nowadays.

In the second half of the 20th century the strife African American people had to face began to change, but racism against Blacks or between Blacks and other minorities is still a major issue in the United States. Surveys confirm this statement, e.g.:

“A recent USA Today /Gallup poll finds most Americans saying racism is widespread against blacks in the United States. This includes a slim majority of whites (51%), a slightly higher 59% of Hispanics, and the vast majority of blacks (78%).”[3]

The definition of the term violence, also given in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, is the following: “violent behaviour that is intended to hurt or kill somebody; physical or emotional force and energy”.[4] Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice verify that violence against African Americans still is on the agenda:

“Blacks were victims of an estimated 805,000 nonfatal violent crimes and of about 8,000 homicides in 2005. Blacks accounted for 13% of the U.S. population in 2005, but were victims in 15% of all nonfatal violent crimes and nearly half of all homicides. During the 5-year period from 2001 to 2005, the average annual rate of nonfatal violent victimization against blacks was 29 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older. For whites the rate was 23 per 1,000, and for Hispanics, 24 per 1,000.”[5]

2. Ann Petry- An African American Writer (based on Holladay17ff)

Ann Lane, an African American short story writer, novelist, essayist, poet, lecturer, children's book author and also pharmacist, was born on 12 October 1908 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She published three novels The Street (1946), Country Place (1947) and the The Narrows (1953), as well as a collection of short stories Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), the first anthology of short stories published by a female African American writer, and poems Noo York City 1-3 (1976), A Purely Black Stone, A Real Boss Black Cat (both 1981). After the birth of her daughter Elisabeth, she publishes her first children’s book The Drugstore Cat (1949), followed by Harriet Tubman, Conductor of the Underground (1955), Tituba of Salem Village (1964) and Legends of Saints (1970).

Although Ann Petry first graduated from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy in New Haven in 1931 to work in the family drugstores, she moved to Harlem, New York, with her new husband George D. Petry in 1938. There she started working for the Amsterdam News (in 1938), which concentrated on local and national news as well as on the realization of Black hopes and aims, and People’s Voice (in 1941). Besides the surrounding area of Harlem gave her possibilities to enlarge and improve her creative talents. She paid attention on art at The Harlem Art Center and took classes in creative writing at the Columbia University from 1942 until 1944. Already in 1939 she published Marie of the Cabin Club, her first short story. In 1940 she played a role in On Striver’s Row by Abram Hill, who was one of the founders of The American Negro Theatre (a pioneering African-American theatre company) in Harlem the same year, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

It seems that Ann Petry had a lot of different interests and talents. On the one hand she studied pharmacy to work in a drugstore; on the other hand she played the role of Tillie Petunia at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In addition she was a journalist and reporter, who wrote weekly columns for People’s Voice, she was author of eight books and later also a lecturer at university. Ann Petry received the Doctor of Letters from the Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts and later from the University of Connecticut. On top of that she received an award from the Connecticut Historical Society (1984), a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Fifth Annual Celebration of Black Writers Conference in Philadelphia (1989) and she was honoured for her literary work by the City of Philadelphia (1985).

Maria Balshaw states in Looking for Harlem Urban Aesthetics in African-American Literature that Ann Petry, although she had a lot of literary work published, never got the attention her achievements deserve.[6] I agree on that statement. I never heard about that overwhelming success that the publication of her first novel The Street got. I must admit I never heard about the novelist Ann Petry before working with her short story The Witness in preparation for the seminar. While reading extracts from Miss Muriel and Other Stories and The Street I found out about the significance Petry’s visionary literary work has especially for the African American women literature. In an interview with journalist Earl Conrad of the Chicago Defender (“The Woman’s Place in Harlem”)[7], Petry talks about the difficulties a female (African American) writer had to face in the 1940s:

“[The success of the black woman writing in the 1940s] is understandable only when you realize the condition of the mass of [black] woman. The fact that few [black] woman have had the opportunity to write, to secure the leisure, study, and to do the reading necessary to write, itself shows where the [black] woman has been: She has been hard at work earning a livelihood, not only for herself but often for a whole family.”[8]

In addition, Petry’s literary work, especially her ghetto-novel The Street, is also really significant for the time of the Chicago Renaissance:

“Within the annals of African American literature, Ann Petry’s novels were published during the Chicago Renaissance (1935-1953). In the lead article to a special issue of Callaloo (1986), dedicated to Richard Wright, the most influential writer of the renaissance, critic Robert Bone defines the movement as the flowering of the Negro letters that took place in Chicago from approximately 1935 to 1950. …[Furthermore, it] was in all respects comparable to the more familiar Harlem Renaissance […] the writers of the Chicago school launched their careers [,] they wrote repeatedly of the Great Migration, and of the transformation that it wrought in the black community. They wrote of the pathology that was too often the price of adjustment to the urban scene…. Their basic outlook, reflecting the recent history of the black community, was integrationist. This orientation was reinforced by their contacts with the Chicago School of Sociology, which offered them a sophisticated theory of urbanization.”[9]

Although Ann Petry is a major novelist of the Chicago Renaissance, she is not living there; she is in New York City. It is the same with settings, where the different stories are set. Ann Petry’s The Street is for instance set in Harlem that is why the reader could assume that Petry is a Harlem Renaissance’ writer. But, as stated in the quotation above, what determines a writer of the Chicago Renaissance is the view for the urban environment. Petry never agreed on the classifications of her critics; in an interview, she insists: “If I belong to a certain tradition, I don’t want to belong, because my writing would be very boring if I always wrote in a particular style.”[10] This statement shows a strong and proud woman who is against narrow-minded ways of thinking and being put in a certain category.

3. Miss Muriel and Other Stories- “The Wheeling Stories”

"In Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), Ann Petry reveals her continuing fascination with the way people shaped by the company they keep. Although these stories were originally published over a long period of time, from 1940s to 1971, they cohere geographically and thematically. All of the works take place in New York or New England, and, while taking up a multiplicity of perspectives, they share a preoccupation with race, gender, and class, among other characteristics that often incite prejudice. But Petry’s stories, like her novels, refuse to settle for easy truths. They do not moralize, and they do not avoid showing minority characters that inflict pain as well as suffer from it. For Petry, prejudice in all its permutations is finally a creative force. In Miss Muriel, individuals, their relationships with others, and their communities are clearly formed by human bias, not just harmed by it. […] The book begins with a series of four Wheeling stories: “Miss Muriel,” “The New Mirror”, “Has anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean?, “and “The Migraine Workers.” The collection’s ninth story, “The Witness,” returns to Wheeling. When read in sequence, these stories gradually move forward in time. […] “The Witness“ reflects the social environment of the late 1960s or early 1970s. In addition to the time, the narrative point of view in these stories also shifts. […] “[11][12]


[1] Hornby, A. S. (Ed.). Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag GmbH, 2005.

[2] Hornby, A. S. (Ed.). Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag GmbH, 2005.

[3] http://www.gallup.com/poll/109258/Majority-Americans-Say-Racism-Against-Blacks-Widespread.aspx

[4] Hornby, A. S. (Ed.). Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag GmbH, 2005.

[5] http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/bvvc.htm

[6] Balshaw, Maria. Looking for Harlem Urban Aesthetics in African-American Literature. London: Pluto Press, 2000. (cf p.97)

[7] Hazel, Arnett Ervin (Ed.). The Critical Response to Ann Petry. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. (p.xx)

[8] Hazel, Arnett Ervin (Ed.). The Critical Response to Ann Petry. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. (p.xx)

[9] Hazel, Arnett Ervin (Ed.). The Critical Response to Ann Petry. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. (p.xvi)

[10] Hazel, Arnett Ervin (Ed.). The Critical Response to Ann Petry. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. (p.xvii)

[11] Holladay, Hilary. Ann Petry. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. (p.93)

[12] Holladay, Hilary. Ann Petry. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. (p.93)

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Race, Racism and Violence in Ann Petry’s 'The Witness'
From Miss Muriel and Other Stories
African American Women Writers
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Race, Racism, Violence, Petry’s, Witness, From, Miss, Muriel, Other, Stories
Quote paper
Jeannette Nedoma (Author), 2008, Race, Racism and Violence in Ann Petry’s 'The Witness', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126506


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