Years after its original publication, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets remains as powerful, immediate, and shocking as it was when it first stunned readers. In this classic confessional autobiography, firmly in the tradition of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Piri Thomas describes the experience of growing up in the barrio of Spanish Harlem, a labyrinth of lawlessness, drugs, gangs, and crime.
The teenaged Piri seeks a place for himself in barrio society by becoming a gang leader, and as he grows up his life spirals into a self-destructive cycle of drug addiction and violence, the same cycle that he sees all around him and hardly knows how to break. Piri is also troubled by a very personal problem: much darker than his brothers and sisters, he decides that he, unlike his siblings, is black, and that he must come to terms with life as a black American. Eventually arrested for shooting two men in an armed robbery, Piri spends six years in Sing and Comstock prisons.
With insight and poetry he describes his time in prison, the dreams and emotions that prompted him finally to start life again as a writer, street poet, and performer, and how he became an activist with a passionate commitment to reaching and helping today’s youth. One of the most striking features of Down These Mean Streets is its language. “It is a linguistic event,” said The New York Times Book Review. “Gutter language, Spanish imagery and personal poetics…mingle into a kind of individual statement that has very much its own sound.
” Piri Thomas’s brilliant way with words, his ability to make language come alive on the page, should prove attractive to young people and inspire them to look at writing and literature in fresh new ways. Thirty years ago Piri Thomas made literary history with this lacerating, lyrical memoir of his coming of age on the streets of Spanish Harlem. Here was the testament of a born outsider: a Puerto Rican in English-speaking America; a dark-skinned morenito in a family that refused to acknowledge its African blood.
Here was an unsparing document of Thomas’s plunge into the deadly consolations of drugs, street fighting, and armed robbery–a descent that ended when the twenty-two-year-old Piri was sent to prison for shooting a cop. As he recounts the journey that took him from adolescence in El Barrio to a lock-up in Sing to the freedom that comes of self-acceptance, faith, and inner confidence, Piri Thomas gives us a book that is as exultant as it is harrowing and whose every page bears the irrepressible rhythm of its author’s voice.
Thirty years after its first appearance, this classic of manhood, marginalisation, survival, and transcendence is available in an anniversary edition with a new Introduction by the author. The questions, assignments, and discussion topics that follow are designed to guide your students as they approach the many issues raised in Down These Mean Streets. The questions of race and culture, of drugs, and of crime and punishment are all treated in the book, and should provide jumping-off points for many fruitful discussions.
Another important element of the book is its vivid description of the youth culture of the barrio. Ask your students not only to pay special attention to that culture, but also to compare it with their own, and to look for similarities even when similarities might not be immediately evident. Piri Thomas gained the distance and objectivity to observe his world without prejudice or self-deception; your students should try to do the same. Finally, the students should be encouraged to look at the book not only as a cultural document, but also as a work of literature.
Ask them to examine the language Thomas uses, his choice of words, the “flow” of the story. How does he create his informal tone, his sense of immediacy? This work might help change your students’ ideas about the “right” way to write, and inspire them to try to find their own individual voices. To what extent is Harlem’s communal code of pride, masculinity, and “rep” re-created in prison life? How does life inside prison resemble life outside? “The reasoning that my punishment was deserved was absent. As prison blocks off your body, so it suffocates your mind.” [pp. 255–56]
Does this indicate to you an essential fault in the prison system? Do you think that the advice Piri gives Tico about how to deal with Rube is good? Is prison a purely negative experience for Piri, or are there good things about it? Which of the people he meets while in prison enrich and improve his life? Does Piri decide not to join the rioters, or is the decision essentially made for him by the hacks? Why does Chaplin/Muhammed believe that Christianity is the white man’s religion, Islam the black man’s?
Do outside or societal factors play a role in Chaplin/ Muhammad’s choice of religions? As he leaves prison, Piri says, “I am not ever going to be the same. I’m changed all right. ” [p. 306] In what ways has Piri changed, and what has changed him? Which of his ideas have been altered by his time in prison? Piri presents himself as a product of his race, culture, and community, but many of his traits are purely his own. How would you describe Piri’s personality? Poppa: What kind of a person is Poppa? What makes him proud, what makes him ashamed?
Is he a good or bad father, a good or bad husband? Do you find him sympathetic? Trina: Piri sees Trina as nearly perfect. How would you describe her? Do you think that she behaves passively toward Piri, or does she demonstrate spirit of her own? What do you think of her response to Dulcien’s baby? Brew: How would you describe Brew’s character? What has given him his outlook on life, and how does it differ from Alayce’s? How does he perceive Piri? Why does he agree to go south with Piri? Chaplin/Muhammed: What has made Muhammed hate Christianity?
What does Islam mean to him? Piri Thomas uses a number of pungent expressions, both in Spanish and English. How does the language he uses express his character and his world? Write a two-page essay describing one day in your life. Use your own style of talking, and try to be as colloquial as possible. What might your essay tell the reader about you, your friends, and your world? The youth culture in Spanish Harlem to which Piri and his friends belong has certain firm, if unwritten, rules. Would you say the same is true of your own school or neighborhood?
What are the rules that govern the behavior of young people you know? What do you feel you have to do to be “cool,” to be accepted, to belong? Write a short essay describing the social rules your own friend’s follow. Piri is describing a specific period in time: the 1940s. Do you find that the life a family like the Thomas’s lived has changed much since that time? Make a list of the things that have changed for teenagers like Piri, and of the things that have stayed the same. Reference • Down these mean streets by Thomas Piri
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