In Ann Petry’s neglected 1953 novel The Narrows, she forcefully, and perhaps even poetically, grapples with the intersectionality of race, class and gender. While she explores interracial relationships, she does not present caricatures of Blacks and whites, but rather writes real people, with real passions, flaws, insecurities, and for some, evolutions. An example of this is Link, the male Black protagonist. He is a tragic character, yet admirable, as he falls in love, is deceived, and in the ultimately betrayed. He is not written as a grinning buffoon, or as a representation of a stereotype. Rather, he has depth, and is both sympathetic and optimistic. He is reluctantly offered up as a sacrifice by Petry as a lesson that those who believe that racial and class lines can be blurred, and that societal barriers can be overcome, must pay a terrible price for attempting to do so.
Link, who attended Dartmouth, is a bartender. His intellect is obviously wasted in this vocation, but he feels that there is a lack of opportunity for him due to his race. Link intervenes to save a woman from an attack, and that act of heroism, while noble, sets him on the inevitable road to destruction. Due to the cover of New England fog, he does not initially know that the woman, who introduces herself as Camilo, is a white woman, nor does she know that he is Black man. Upon entering the bar, to their shock, their ethnicities are revealed. They begin a passionate and dangerous love affair, that is both wondrous and torturous for Link. Camilo finds release from the tedium of her marriage. While I do not question that Link falls desperately in love with Camilo, I do not know that she ever truly falls in love, or allows herself to fall in love with him.
Link eventually discovers that he has been deceived, and that his lover is really Camilla Treadway Sheffield, heiress to the Treadway Munitions Company. He is not only hurt, but questions Camilo’s intentions. Was he, like Black male slaves before him, just a Black buck that a white woman had decided to have a dalliance with? His decision to break off their affair has far reaching implications for everyone in the novel. Camilla, unwilling to accept Link’s decision, impulsively accuses him of rape. This cruel act has historical connotations. The dangerous and sexually deviant Black male, preying on the fragility and innocence of a white woman, is an old and insidious myth, and one that has led many Black men to being lynched, and becoming casualties of the white mob mentality. Camila’s lie leads to Link’s murder, as he is yet another unwitting victim of what I call the “dangerous and sexually deviant Black male myth”.