Piri Thomas

(b. 1928)

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(1928–2011), autobiographer, essayist, playwright, poet, filmmaker, and lecturer.

Piri Thomas was born Juan Pedro Thomás, in New York City's Spanish Harlem on 30 September 1928 of Puerto Rican and Cuban parentage. His early life was marked by involvement in violence and drugs, culminating in his arrest and imprisonment for attempted armed robbery. Thomas served seven years (1950–1956) of a five–to–fifteen year sentence. Upon his release from prison, he began working in prison and drug rehabilitation programs in New York City and has subsequently written three volumes of autobiography, a collection of short stories for adolescent readers, and a play. Latterly Thomas travelled, presenting a program entitled Unity Among Us, stressing human dignity and people's relationship to the earth.

In 1967 Thomas published Down These Mean Streets, a chronicle of his youth. In crude but forceful language, Down These Mean Streets recounts Thomas's life on the streets, his experiences with sex, drugs, and crime, and his groping toward empowerment and self–worth through the expression of machismo, an aggressive code of male behavior derived from Hispanic culture.

While noting the autobiography's stylistic flaws, critics praised Down These Mean Streets for its powerful depiction of the hellish conditions of inner–city life and hailed Thomas as a chronicler of a previously “silenced” group–the negritos, or black Puerto Ricans, of Spanish Harlem. Thomas was compared favorably with James Baldwin and Claude Brown as a writer documenting his successful struggle to achieve personhood despite the dehumanizing conditions of minorities in America.

Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand (1972) recounts how Piri Thomas, newly released from prison, strives to rebuild his life. He converts to Christianity, works with street youths, seeks employment, marries, and starts a family. Critics generally expressed disappointment with Savior, Savior Hold My Hand for lacking the emotional intensity of Thomas's first book. Seven Long Times (1974), Thomas's account of his prison years, was criticized by some as a tepid retelling of events more forcefully recorded in Down These Mean Streets but praised by others as a testament to the human will to survive and as a call for prison reform. Thomas's collection of stories for young adults, Stories from El Barrio, appeared in 1978, to mixed reviews.

Piri Thomas continued to write, work in film production, and present his message of self-worth to varied audiences. He will probably be remembered, however, for Down These Mean Streets, the one volume of his autobiographical trilogy currently in print. The book provides readers with the satisfaction of seeing Thomas escape from the horror of his early life–a story often told in African American autobiography and fiction–but it speaks a note of warning, as well. Down These Mean Streets reminds us that the conditions under which Thomas grew up are today the same or worse for thousands of young Americans. Tragically, many of them, unlike Piri Thomas, will not be able to leave the street and create new lives.

“Thomas, Piri,” in CA, vol. 73–76, ed. Frances C. Locher, 1978, pp. 604–605.“Piri Thomas,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 17, ed. Sharon R. Gunton, 1981, pp. 497–502.Marta E. Sanchez, “La Malinche at the Intersection: Race and Gender in Down These Mean Streets,” PMLA 113 (Jan. 1998): 117–128.


Subjects: Literature.

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