Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Remembering Piri Thomas

Piri Thomas
When I was growing up, the division of reading in my home went like this: my father read newspapers, and my mother read books. (Both read magazines.) My mother read all kinds of books, but especially novels, most of them romances after a certain point, but among her non-romance stash my favorites were novels by Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Sidney Sheldon, William Styron, and Kyle Onstott. Roots, by Alex Haley, whom my mother says is a paternal relative of mine, made its appearance around the time of the famous miniseries, but I don't recall my father picking it up, and I didn't touch it until several years later, so initially annoyed was I by (mostly white) classmates who took glee in calling me "racines" (roots, in French, one of the two foreign languages I had to study in 7th grade), which rhymed with my last name, and then was truncated to "Rasss." (Eventually I took it in stride, as I did other witty permutations on my name.) Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I did occasionally peek at based on my fascination with its eponymous subject, also sat on the living room bookshelf. There were, however, a few books other than the Bible that I knew my father periodically read at some point read, and of them, three gravitated from living room to the top of his bureau and back. Those were Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice; Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land; and Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets.

The former always stands out for me because of Eldridge Cleaver's handsome, striking face on the cover, and its poetic title. I would sometimes pick the book up and stare it, and then read the back flap and say to myself, this is one of those men's books, black men's books, a book about the 1960s and early 1970s and all the things that had gone down then, that this survivor had bravely written about.  The cover image and title together exuded a ferocity and frustration that I recognized in my father, in older male relatives and other black men near my father's age. I didn't read the book, though, because I thought of it as one of my father's books, something I shouldn't be reading--though I had no hesitation in reading Walker, or Baldwin, or Onstott--and didn't. I felt similarly about Brown's. The same was true of Thomas's book, which though also there in the house I didn't crack; its title alone was a warning: I may have originally assumed those "mean streets" were somewhere in St. Louis, or if not there, Chicago or some similar Midwestern city, until I read the book's back cover and saw that Thomas was writing about "Spanish Harlem," which I knew, because of the "Harlem," meant New York City and black people, though I had no concept of where in New York Harlem or Spanish Harlem for that matter was. But the back cover write-up suggested that the story the novel's pages contained was a harsh one, a man's story, and since this was one of my father's books and actually did appear to be read from time to time, I did no more than glance at it and try, when I had picked it up, to make sure it lay exactly where I had found it lest he notice that it had been disturbed even an inch.

I finally read Down These Mean Streets when I was in college, not as part of the curriculum of any course but because I was trying to read all kinds of things I felt I should be reading or have read (like Roots, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X), as opposed to things I'd been assigned to read in junior high and high school (Macbeth, Lord of the Flies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lysistrata, Le noeud de vipères) or out of my own unclassifiable interests (Teach Yourself Sanskrit, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Ulysses, Annie Allen) or as part of my college syllabi (Harmonium, Tender Buttons, The Conquest of New Spain, Ariel). As I proceeded through Thomas's account of his early life and youth as a Puerto Rican-Cuban (born Juan Pedro Tomás, in 1928) in Depression era and post-war America, I glimpsed what my father might have seen in the book, the common points despite their different heritages, backgrounds and experiences. My father was not from El Barrio; my father, as far as I knew, could not speak more than a few words of Spanish; my father never went to jail on drug charges. But Thomas's story of struggling to find his place in a city, a society and a world that had little interest in or place for him; his journey, as a latino man of African descent (among other ancestries), from the ghetto, to finding and asserting his presence and voice, against and through multiple invisibilities; his narrative of becoming a man, which was also at its core a narrative of becoming and being, I could see spoke directly to my father, as Haley/Malcolm X's, Brown's and Eldridge Cleaver's books did, and it spoke immediately to me. Thomas's love of books, of libraries, of the power of being able to travel to other places through literary texts, spoke even more directly to my mind and soul.

Thomas at University
of Chicago, delivering
a flow, 1969

Down These Mean Streets, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1967, is now a classic. Raw, poetic, sometimes infuriating, sometimes shocking, but always enthralling, Thomas's autobiographical novel tackled, among its many themes, the racial and ethnic diversity and attendant tensions both within and outside latino communities, a focus that many subsequent writers and scholars have picked up, but which the contemporary mainstream US media still cannot fully grasp or comprehend.  Its portrait of Spanish Harlem was also different from some of the idealized depictions that had preceded it (cf. West Side Story), and inspired many subsequent writers, latino and non-latino, to write their own stories. Thomas became quite famous for this book, to which he published a sequel, 7 Long Times (Arte Público, 1994). He also released other works, such as Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand (Doubleday, 1972) and Stories From El Barrio (Freedom Voices, 2005)  He was also a poet, and recorded and issued CDs of his poetry, performed in a style he called flow, akin to rap's precursors such as the spoken-word poetry and songs of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Felipe Luciano, Lou Rawls, and Oscar Brown, Jr.  His CDs were Sounds of the Streets and No Mo' Barrio Blues. He wrote and talked with young people all over the country about his own experiences, about being a Puerto Rican and latino in this country, about the history of Puerto Rico/Borinquen, about being a convict and an ex-con and the role that race and ethnicity play in the US penal system, about challenging the social logic and law of racism, whose effects he and many millions of others have suffered since this country's earliest days, and above all, about the necessity of "unity," a word he used when he spoke to young people, which is to say about finding commonalities and connections amid, across and despite differences.

Piri Thomas's vital voice left us yesterday, October 17, 2011, but it is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. We still have his words, in text and CD form, online and on libraries shelves, and, as I remember growing up, on bookshelves and bureaus. His vision and wisdom, captured in his novel, lives on and endures--vivirán y durarán--in heads, in hearts, in souls.

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