Piri Thomas: In His Own Words

Piri Thomas
An Introduction…
(from “Afterword,” 30th anniversary edition of Down These Mean Streets)

[Over] thirty years ago in 1967, Alfred A. Knopf, published my first book, Down These Mean Streets. It has been in print since that time and is now considered a classic of its kind. When Vintage Press decided to put out a 30th year special edition of Down These Mean Streets, and I was asked if I would care to write an introduction for the special edition, I was more than glad.

Writing Down These Mean Streets was a soul searing experience for me, in which I forced myself to go back into time to see the sees, do the dos, hear the hears, and feel the feelings over and over and over again, at times feeling certain past traumatic experiences seven times stronger. Down These Mean Streets exploded out of my guts in an outpouring of long suppressed hurts and angers that had boiled over into an ice cold rage.

Many of us lived through the desperate years of the Great Depression and struggled to survive life in the ghettos, where the invasions of hot and cold-running cockroaches and king-size rats always seemed to come from other apartments but never from your own. There was always the pain from the pressure of fear brought about by racism: although many black and brown lives were snuffed out at the end of a rope, any means would do, including baseball bats.

We all went through the exploitation that came from greed and listened to politicians wearing smiles on their faces that were wasted because they did not match what was in their hearts, making promises that never came to be.

In prison, I did my best to keep love alive in me by tuning in to the love that my mother, Dolores Montañez Tomás, had instilled in my heart as a child. I would remember when she lay dying in the poor people’s ward in Metropolitan Hospital and I was by her side. She was thirty-six years old and I was her first-born, her negrito. At night in my cell, from time to time, I would nourish my soul from her love, reliving past warm memories. I believe love is the Barrio’s greatest strength. The proof is on the faces of the children who, against heavy odds, can still smile with amazing grace as they struggle to survive and rise above the mean streets.

I wrote about the conditions of life in the barrio back then, but in spite of books like Down These Mean Streets and Manchild in the Promised Land (by Claude Brown) and The Wretched Of The Earth (by Frantz Fanon), alas, the same conditions still exist for the poor today, and in fact are worsening, with increased cut-backs of vital programs, which up to now had given some of the poor a fighting chance; all the while, national weapons production climbs. Further, with higher unemployment and more cut-backs planned, with high quality education already out of reach for most poor children, and with the fast growing number of the homeless which come in all colors, our streets have turned into battlegrounds in the Crack Wars. The toll rises as our young people kill each other as well as the innocent in drive-by shootings.

Violence roams the streets of America as well as the streets of the world. Today our prisons are bulging with inmates, most of them doing time for drugs. When I was in prison some forty seven years ago, 85% of the inmates were white, 15% were black and brown. I visit prisons from time to time and now 15% are white and 85% of the inmates are the blacks and browns.

Racism is a most sad and terrible part of America’s history. We know for a fact that since Reconstruction days following the Civil War, racists in white hoods or dressed otherwise have worked very hard to return things to their version of the good ole plantation days.

Children of the poor are not fools and many are of the mind that, on the whole, society really does not give a crap about them. So when we hear society expressing that “the children are our future,” many of us ask, whose children and whose future? The young are full of concern about the growing numbers of hate crimes, church burnings and racist riots in prisons that are bursting at the seams. As far as I’m concerned, a quality education is the best way to rise above the ghettos and escape out of the trap of poverty, that is, unless one hits the bulls-eye by winning the Lotto.

The truth is that when the economy goes into a slump, Americans of all colors fall into worse living conditions. These bad living conditions are not the fault of other colors, so let’s quit looking for scapegoats; sadly, the real culprit is, and has always been, a breed named greed. What else can it be, except greed, when it’s a known fact that two-percent of the population receive 98% of the national wealth? This inequality certainly has to affect the welfare and education of the children of the other 98% of the population, who are forced to get by with a measly 2% share of the national wealth. Besides, who created their wealth in the first place?

There are multitudes who have died fighting throughout history for all kinds of causes. But I’ve have yet to hear of a world-wide cause in the name of the children of earth. Children are not stupid, they are all born with innate intelligence and the spirit of discernment. I believe every child is born a poet and every poet is the child. I believe that every child is 360 degrees of the circle of creativity. I believe that every child is born of earth and universe, so how can any child be considered unimportant and dehumanized, relegated to being a minority, a “less than”?

Skin color is not a sign of intelligence, no more than it is a sign of stupidity. That is an erroneous theory taught by those who entertain racist views such as those found in The Bell Curve. Children become what they are taught or not taught, children become what they learn or don’t learn. We humans are similar to each other, but like finger-prints and cultures, not quite the same, so viva la diferencia and let’s get to know one another, born of respect. Hopefully, this will lead us to caring and then sharing with the children of the world.

John F. Kennedy once quipped, “Who said life was fair?” I’d like to say, “So, make life fair. Let America set a beautiful new standard of caring, not only for our own children, but for all the children of the world.”

You may ask, where do we start? As a writer, I am concerned with words, names. And names applied to human beings have great importance, since names can be positive or negative, bullets or butterflies. When I was a young muchacho back in those barrio days, I would hear brothers and sisters calling each other names like, “Hey nigger” or “Hey spic!” I didn’t care for those terms back then and I still don’t care for them today. When I was a kid running down dark ghetto streets, there was a saying from which I learned wisdom. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.” The first part about “stones breaking my bones” is right, but the part about, “words can never harm me” is bullshit!! Words can harm a child when they are negative, like ‘nigger’ or ‘spic’ or minority. Why should we repeat the indignity by referring to each other with contemptuous racist terms? We must learn that words can be bullets or butterflies, we must learn to say what we mean and mean what we say. For if we are what we eat, we are what we think, so let’s not mug each other with racism and hatred, which are not the sole domain of one color.

My father Juan, also known as Johnny, once gave me some advice in the art of survival, “Listen hijo, sometime you don’t look where you’re going and you stumble into trouble. You must learn how to spot danger by learning to smell the ca-ca at least twenty miles away, for remember, son, that mierda not only walks on two feet, but it also comes in all colors.” I moved to exercise my powers of being able to smell ca-ca twenty miles away and to recognize the difference between ca-ca and flowers, when my father stopped me, “por favor son, before you start out to smell other people’s ca-ca, smell your own first, otherwise you’ll get so used to smelling everyone else’s, you might forget you have quite a bit of your own.” Punto! (How’s that for barrio wisdom from Papi and as for Mami, she’d say, among other things, “Negrito, tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are.”Punto!!)

I would be very happy if we were all to enter a wonderful new era, where the children of earth, and not weapons of war, are considered the top priority. I have been told that what I’m looking for is utopia. So, vaya!!, what is wrong with that? Imagine, our world in unity, pooling creativity and technology in order to heal the earth of the horrors inflicted on her in the name of greed. Look at the huge amounts of deadly toxic waste buried where children live and animals graze. Look at the poisons dumped into our waters. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where peace and justice were a foregone conclusion and calamities were only natural and not man-made?

In writing Down These Mean Streets, it was my hope that exposure of such conditions in the ghetto would have led to their improvement. But, thirty years later, the sad truth is that people caught in the ghettoes have not made much progress, have moved backwards in many respects–the social safety net is much weaker now. Unfortunately, it’s the same old Mean Streets, only worse.

I was taught that justice wears a blindfold, so as not to be able to distinguish between the colors, and thus make everyone equal in the eyes of the law. I propose we remove the blindfold from the eyes of Lady Justice, so for the first time she can really see what’s happening and check out where the truth lies and the lies hide. That would be a start.

Viva the children of all the colors! Punto!