Cover image for Can anything beat white? : a Black family's letters
Can anything beat white? : a Black family's letters
Petry, Elisabeth.
First edition.
Publication Information:
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Physical Description:
xxx, 190 pages ; 24 cm
Surviving the patterrollers -- The surrogate mother -- The wanderer -- Consumed by life -- Getting along swimmingly -- Setting the stage -- Writing for posterity from Hawaii -- Challenges at Atlanta University -- A lark a flyin' -- Achieving a dream.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3531.E933 Z55 2005 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



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 in-spiration for much of her fiction. This collection of more than four hundred family letters, edited by the daughter of Ann Petry, 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.

Ann 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." He 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 Ann Petry's mother, Bertha James Lane, was the oldest.

History is made and remade by the availability of new documents, sources, and interpretations. Can Anything Beat White? contributes a great deal to this process. The experiences of the James family as documented in their letters challenge both representations of black people at the turn of the century as well as our contemporary sense of black Americans.

Author Notes

Elisabeth Petry is a freelance writer with a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She lives in Middletown, Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Northeast (the magazine of the Hartford Courant) and Work-Boat magazine.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Petry offers a mesmerizing look at the everyday lives of a middle-class African American family in the nineteenth century through a glimpse of the 400 cards and letters saved by the James family between 1891 and 1910. The family, who settled in Hartford, Connecticut, just after the Civil War, demonstrated enterprise and determination, giving rise to several entrepreneurs, adventurers, and the critically acclaimed novelist Ann Petry (1908-97). The family of former slave Willis Samuel James and his second wife kept up a steady correspondence around the nation and the world, as the five children ventured out to become farmers, drug-store owners, educators, and soldiers. They chronicle the race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 and in Atlanta in 1906, as well as the service of black soldiers in the Philippines following the Spanish---American War, and the rise of the Niagara Movement as the emerging black middle class asserted its rights to full citizenship. The reader is treated to a rare look at life for ordinary black middle-class family members and their perspectives on history. --Vanessa Bush Copyright 2005 Booklist

Choice Review

Willis Samuel James escaped from slavery and later worked as a coachman for the governor of Connecticut; he purchased a home in a white neighborhood in Hartford in 1875. James fathered numerous children by three successive wives. His granddaughter was writer Ann Petry. This book is based on letters written between 1891 and 1910 between members of the extended family. At a time when 90 percent of black people still lived in the South and almost three-fourths of them were sharecroppers, the James family lived mostly in cities in the North. At a time when nearly half of black people were illiterate, the James family was literate and preserved hundreds of letters, cards, and notes. Three of James's children attended Hampton Institute (though not all graduated), and one (Helen Lou James) attended Atlanta University and was a student of W. E. B. Du Bois. This book offers a glimpse of the aspiring black middle class striving for upward mobility and self-determination against great odds. Minor editorial flaws (e.g., Du Bois's book is The Souls of Black Folk, not The Souls of Black Folks). No index. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. W. Glasker Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Camden