Piri Thomas was born on September 28th of 1928 in El Barrio, NYC (aka East Harlem) to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother. El Barrio was a rough piece of ghetto then and it still is and Piri grew up in those mean streets. He was in a gang and into drugs and was a stick-up kid and it landed him in prison where he began to write. His most famous and enduring novel was his first, Down These Mean Streets, a cathartic piece of writing based on his experiences coming of age in El Barrio, NYC. It was written shortly after Piri got out of prison. Down These Mean Streets became the first installment in what could be seen as a trilogy of novels that were all based on his life. Saviour Saviour was about his spiritual struggles and how he saw religion being used to pimp the ghetto. Seven Long Times was about how he did his time in prison. On October 17th, Piri Thomas died of pneumonia at the age of 83.
The best art has a way of leaving scars on you. You don’t walk away from it as you came to it. You become altered by it. Your reality is changed by it. A metamorphosis takes place as you experience it. i first read Down These Mean Streets in High School. It blew my mind, it left a scar, it altered my consicousness and i was not the same after i read it. Only a few years later i started to try writing myself and i’m still trying to write. Still trying to get what Piri Thomas called “the flow” down. The world is a lesser place without his physical presence. Piri put down a solid foundation that was built on by the Nuyorican Poets. The Nuyorican Poets were the harbingers of Hip-hop along with Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets. Piri’s influence is still reverberating in classrooms and street corners and subway cars and rooftops. i think it will always reverberate…
Below is an excerpt of an interview that Humberto Cintron did with Piri, from Piri Thomas official website. The interview is a perfect introduction to Piri Thomas… it’s also almost a prophecy to what has been going on with the Occupy Wall Street movement that has been taking the US by storm. i have been writing a lot here on the issues of Occupy Wall Street and what that means to non-white people. i have been saying that the white left that began the Occupation movement in the US needs to look to non-whites for the solutions to many of the problems we all face since we non-whites have been dealing with those issues for longer than anyone cares to remember. Read on and you’ll see that you can almost add prophet to Piri Thomas accomplishments… Read on and you’ll see what i mean…
THOMAS: We have been brainwashed by materialism and the obsession of being “el quitate tu pa’ ponerme yo” (get out of the way so I can take your place). We don’t kill each other with hate as much as we do with envy. What we need is a unity of “we” and then we can present a united front against injustice.
Who said the Barrios can’t have their wise humans? Who said the Barrios can’t have their philosophers? Who said the Barrios can’t have their art, their painters, their writing, their poets? Who says that we cannot be all that? Does it only count on a level that because you have money then you’re respected? Because you have pieces of paper, degrees, and so forth? When creativity and wisdom is such a natural freedom? Horse Shit! They had me into all that, and as a street kid I learned, “Fuck you all.” I said, “I’m gonna take it from you just like they do in the gangster pictures and them Robber Barons and all those people who stole their way and made it big and later became humanitarians, philanthropists who seek to buy their consciences with blood money.” I live with principles. I’m a man who came out of the streets, of drugs and eye droppers and all the rest of the shit, I went to prison, and I paid my dues. And I got a right to rise above all that. I am not going to live in the errors. And what people don’t forgive me for the past, I forgive myself. I paid the dues and damned if I’m going to live my life with guilt.
CINTRON: How do you see the future?
THOMAS: I see the future–two sides of the coin. We either live in a truly democratic society or suffer the hell of a world order ruled by a cruel fascist system. In short, we will inherit the final solution. Those who are not considered members of a so-called superior race will vanish up in smoke from the face of the earth. We of all colors must unite, it’s as simple as that. We must learn to respect each other. The power of the earth is in the hands of 600 or 700 families. All the minerals of the earth, all the wealth of the earth, everything of the earth. They are the self-appointed gods. They have the power of life and death over us economically as well as in might. I heard of Nazi Hitler when I was a kid, of a new world order and recently I heard Bush with his mouth opening up and talking about “a new world order.” I said, “Whooah, hey, an order for whom?” I can’t stress enough the importance of unity among all the colors. The handwriting is not on the wall, it’s on ourculitos, on our behinds, on our tushes.
Listen, I have been accused of being many things, among them of being a Communist. Vaya, people don’t have to be Communists to know they’re getting screwed. I’ve been to the ideologies. I been to the commercialized religions. I been to the polices and man, they seem to be in the same pew. So I have stayed with the children. They have truth. Thirty-seven years I’ve been with the children. And before that I was with the children because I was one of the children. Which I still am in my way. And as a poet once wrote, “One hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”