Can Anything Beat White?A Black Family's Letters

Can Anything Beat White?A Black Family's Letters

Elisabeth Petry

Print publication date: 2014

ISBN: 9781617033209

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi


Ann Petry (1908–1997) achieved prominence during a period in which few black women were published with regularity in America. Her novels Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1988), along with various short stories and nonfiction, poignantly described the struggles and triumphs of middle-class blacks living in primarily white communities. Petry’s ancestors, the James family, served as inspiration for much of her fiction. This collection of more than four hundred family letters, edited by Petry’s daughter, is an engaging portrait of black family life from the 1890s to the early twentieth century, a period not often documented by African American voices. Petry’s maternal grandfather, Willis Samuel James, was a slave taught by his children to read and write. He believed “the best place for the negro is as near the white man as he can get,” and followed that “truth,” working as coachman for a Connecticut governor and buying a house in a white neighborhood in Hartford. Willis had sixteen children by three wives. The letters in this collection are from him and his second wife, Anna E. Houston James, and five of Anna’s children, of whom novelist Petry’s mother, Bertha James Lane, was the eldest. History is made and remade by the availability of new documents, sources, and interpretations. This book contributes a great deal to this process. The experiences of the James family as documented in their letters challenge representations of black people at the turn of the century.