The Soul of New York-Piri Thomas, An Appreciation
Piri Thomas perhaps more than anything symbolized what New York means to me. New York is the original melting pot. Where else in the 1950’s could you find a hodge podge of cultures, colors, ethnicities hanging out, playing stickball, singing doo wops on the corner, playing bongos in the park, dating girls who may not look like you?
That was the New York Piri wrote about. That’s the New York that I grew up in. I became aware of Piri Thomas in March 1970 when he came to thenNew York City Community College in downtown Brooklyn. I was 20 and attending college at night when I went to his lecture.
Piri spoke about El Barrio and what it did to him and how he survived. He spoke about drugs and how he hit the main vein. He spoke about prison and learning that he had a skill.
He could write.
He could rhyme.
He spoke about being confused because of his heritage. Was he Black? Was he Puerto Rican? He finally came to terms with his makeup and proceeded to tell a vast world about El Barrio and himself .
“Down These Mean Streets” is not only his story but the story of many people. He spoke about the draft board telling you you’re white, but when you hit the street you’re a spic.
He spoke about how the white majority didn’t want to see a unifying force of Blacks and Puerto Ricans fighting for their rights. He spoke about polarization and the mind games that are played to keep us separate.
I have attended many lectures in my lifetime but this one has stayed with me. When I speak to groups, I remember what Piri said that day and incorporate that in my lectures. With the tactics being used today, especially here in Los Angeles in the public school system, (as described a few months ago by Sikivu Hutchinson) is it any wonder that we have to be on our guard?