Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Down These Mean Streets

by Piri Thomas
1928 – 2011
===========An Autobiography
of a Black Puerto Rican
from Spanish Harlem

“You are a goddamn Negro! You think being Puerto Rican lets you off the hook? That's the trouble. Too many of you damn black Puerto Ricans got your eyes closed. Too many goddamn Negroes all over this goddamn world feel like you do. Just because you can rattle off a different language doesn't change your skin one bit. Man, if there are any black people up on the moon talking that moon talk, they are still Negroes. Get it? Negroes!”

This paraphrased excerpt came from Piri Thomas' best-selling auto-biography Down These Mean Streets published in 1967. Piri was born in Harlem Hospital as Juan Pedro Tomás (before adopting the Anglicized version of his last name) to a dark-skinned Afro-Cuban father and a light-skinned Puerto Rican mother. He talks about his life of poverty, street gangs, drugs, crime, and racism that plagued him while growing up in Spanish Harlem in New York City.

Piri Thomas was born
in Harlem Hospital
as Juan Pedro Tomás

As a Harlem raised kid myself, where my father taught school (P.S. 170 Manhattan) just blocks away from where Piri lived and roamed the streets, I can understand why my father did his best to shelter my brother and me from the mean streets that hooked Piri Thomas.

Despite Piri's Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, he was often viewed as African-American and not Afro-Latino. His father, an Afro-Cuban, hated his own black skin as well as others with black skin. Other members of his family disowned the African aspect of his culture and bloodline, causing Piri to spend much of his childhood and early adult life confused about his true racial and ethnic identity, until one night, he ventured in to the Italian section of Harlem, and was chased by a gang as one shouted, “we are going to get your black ass!” He then wondered, did they mean him?

One night, as he was being chased out of an Italian neighborhood by a gang, one shouted, “we are going to get your black ass!” He then wondered, did they meant him?

Finally, at the age of 17, as he was about to leave home for the Merchant Marines, he experienced a very painful revelation that he was not only Puerto Rican... he is “black.” He learned to embrace both his color and his culture, and became a successful writer and poet. When I finally met Piri Thomas for the first time, he was living in Berkeley, CA with his wife and did a presentation at the César Chávez Public Library in Oakland, CA. I felt honored to receive an autographed copy of his book so many years after reading his book as a sailor in the U.S. Navy.

Click here for the Official Piri Thomas web site


  1. This was a good book; however, this is the first time I ever saw his picture. I always pictured he looked more mixed than he does. I don't see how he could ever pass as anything but black, I guess that shows how complex race & identity can be.

  2. Thank you for this info, Bill. I will definitely get a copy of this book.

    Gil Cureau


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