Piri Thomas Remembered

Writer Piri Thomas is best known and remembered for his best selling autobiographical narrative Down These Mean Streets, a staple on high school and college reading lists. Piri Thomas’s classic memoir offered one of the first views of the experience of being identified as African American and Latino in United States popular culture.

Thomas died October 17, 2011 in his home in El Cerrito, CA, surrounded by his wife Suzie, his children and caregivers. He was 83.

But his work lives on.

This month the legacy of this Afro-Latino will be celebrated at An Homage to Piri Thomas on Saturday, February 18, at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. The event, which is free, will feature a special presentation of SPEAK UP! Throughout his life, Piri Thomas soulfully delivered an array of poetry. The evening will be hosted by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega and Felipe Luciano, and curated by Rich Villar. Poets include Martin Espada, Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Junot Díaz, Willie Perdomo, Mayda del Valle, Emanuel Xavier, and others. To attend, you need to RSVP at www.elmuseo.org.

For those interested in reading his works and learning more about Piri Thomas, Centro Library and Archives has a collection of works by and about Thomas, which include Down These Mean Streets, the Spanish version, Por estas calles bravas, and other books, audio and video recordings. The Library and Archives has compiled a list called Selected List of Works by Piri Thomas at Centro (http://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/NLPiri_Thomas_SELECTED_BOOK_CENTRO_LIBRARY_JAN.pdf). The Library and Archives, which is open to the public, is located at The Louis and Samuel J. Silberman School of Social Work, 2180 Third Avenue and 119th Street, Room 121, in East Harlem.

In Down These Mean Streets, Thomas documents his tough childhood in El Barrio during the 1940s and 1950s as well as his experiences doing time. Thomas was the son of a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. He was born at Harlem Hospital and grew up in NYC’s El Barrio. His dark skin made him feel like an outsider in his own family and neighborhood. The street environment of poverty, racism, and street crime took its toll on his life, including seven years of incarceration.

In a May 21, 1967 The New York Times book review, Daniel Stern described Down These Mean Streets as a book that "claims our attention and emotional response because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status, where the dream is always to escape." Stern wrote that one of the most powerful parts of the book is that it is composed more like poetry than prose.

In addition to his Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas wrote two other novels, Savior Savior Hold My Hand and Seven Long Times, several plays, a book of short stories titled Stories from El Barrio, poems, and he recorded two CDs of poetry and music, Sounds of the Streets and No Mo’'Barrio Blues. Three award-winning films, Petey and Johnny, The World of Piri Thomas, and Every Child is Born a Poet, were made about him.

Through the years, Thomas spoke and performed at events at schools and universities, senior centers, community groups, and political rallies for peace and justice causes. He encouraged young people to be socially responsible in career choices and to write and perform poetry, which subsequently birthed the new wave of “spoken word” that has appeared throughout the country.

 

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