In his memoir “Down These Mean Streets”, Piri Thomas searches for belonging in the racially stratified American nation of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Thomas explores how his race as well as his physical appearance compels him to seek identification with black Americans. Throughout the narrative Piri struggles with his father’s privileging of whiteness and rejection of their visible black racial heritage. Piri questions his father’s abandonment, as he sees it, of their racial identity and of Piri as he attempts to navigate the United States process of assimilation.
While Piri struggles with his rejection by larger society as a Puerto Rican, he is conscious that he has another avenue open to him, identification as a black American, and despite his father’s objections he deliberately explores that option as a way to find some sense of belonging and acceptance. Piri was born at Harlem Hospital and is raised in East Harlem where he learns to identify himself along racial and ethnic lines with the other Puerto Ricans and black Americans that make up his world. When his father moves the family beyond Piri’s comfort zone to Italian turf, just a few blocks away, Piri becomes aware of himself as an outsider.
For the first time, Piri must face the dilemma of being a darker-complexioned Puerto Rican and being labeled as black. At this point in his young life, Piri’s identity is firmly rooted in a Puerto Rican heritage reinforced by his mother’s desire to return home to the Caribbean. Piri remembers his mother’s sentiments: “Momma talked about Puerto Rico and how great it was, and how she’d like to go back one day, and how it was warm all the time there and no matter how poor you were over there, you could always live on green bananas, bacalao, and rice and beans. ‘Dios mio,’ she said, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever see my island again” (Thomas 9)
Piri’s mother serves as a guide that emphasizes her homeland in Piri’s imagination. Although Piri’s family has no hope of ever returning to Puerto Rico, Piri holds onto his Puerto Rican identity and firmly resists anyone’s labeling of him as black American. Another factor in his resistance to a black identification is the white appearances of his mother, sister, and brothers. Piri shares the darker complexion of his father who negates his African heritage by stating that his dark complexion is due to ‘Indian’ blood and even on occasion exaggerates his Puerto Rican accent to emphasize his ethnic difference from black Americans.
Even at a young age Piri recounts feeling as though his dad favored his lighter-complexioned siblings and treated him in a harder and rougher manner: “Pops, I wondered, how come me and you is always on the outs…How come when we all get hit for doing something wrong, I feel it the hardest? Maybe ‘cause I’m the biggest, huh? Or maybe it’s ‘cause I’m the darkest in this family” (Thomas 22). As a child Piri can already sense the difference in the way his father treats him.
As an adult he confronts his father about his behavior and associates his bitterness toward him to the racial self-hatred that his father experiences after his arrival in the United States. In an interview, Thomas acknowledges that although he was conscious of the difference in his appearance at home, it was outside of the home and initially at school where he felt the real impact of being Afro-Latino (Hernandez, 5). In his memoir it is after his father moves Piri outside of his comfort zone again and crosses boundaries by moving his family to a majority white community in Long Island that Piri begins to experience exclusion by his peers.
At a school dance after he overhears a group of white students expressing disgust and resentment at his audacity in asking a white girl to dance with him, he comes to understand his outsider status at school and refuses to return, which eliminates his only educational resource for obtaining higher paying legal employment later on in life. In addition, Piri recounts another instance in Long Island when he was treated as a trespasser also because of his expressed romantic interest in a white woman. In this situation a white man bombards him on a train with racial epithets for being accompanied by his white girlfriend.
In anger Piri transfers his hate for his racial predicament to his girlfriend during sex. He remembers, “In anger, in hate, I took out my madness on her” (Thomas 90). Piri’s actions following this racist experience complement his father’s use of white women to ease the pain of racism. Piri associates his father’s marriage to his white mother and later infidelity with another white woman as an attempt to nullify his blackness. Piri does not verbally claim that this is the motivation for his father’s attraction to white women.
However, Piri acutely senses that Poppa correlates whiteness to superiority and advancement because of his father’s harsher treatment of him in comparison to his fairer siblings and the gradual removal of his family from the barrio and communities of color. Sanchez hypothesizes that while in Puerto Rico, “Poppa protects himself against his ancestral black blood by marrying Piri’s mother, whose white skin gives him racial privilege and cultural capital” (122). From his father, Piri learns to use white women as a tool to ease his own racial discomfort.
Piri is attracted to a fair-complexioned Puerto Rican woman named Trina who becomes his girlfriend. However, unlike his mother who rejects the notion of racial privilege among her family members, Trina is aware of the power position she holds as a white Latina. After a party, Trina comments on her position and the privileges it allows her, “I can drink anytime I want to…After all, I’m free, white, and over the age” (Thomas 112). Piri picks up on her claim to racial privilege and the difference Trina acknowledges between their disparate situations within the American racial hierarchy.
In response to Trina’s drunken statements, Piri attempts to assert a dominant position over her by punching her in the face but instead he injures his hand. Facing racial discrimination as black men is a disempowering and emasculating experience for Piri and his father. Affirming superiority over women is one way that they are able to reaffirm their masculinity and reject a black identification. The association of “black” with the position of inferior social status in the United States and the correlation between women and inferiority in Puerto Rico converge within the context of the Puerto Rican American experience to equate black to woman.
Asserting superiority over women aid Piri and his father in rejecting a black identity. Claiming this position over white women in particular implies that they are capable of transgressing a racial line that black men cannot. In Thomas’s narrative, female characters are repeatedly used by Piri and other men to assert their own masculinity and superiority over women and therefore, through substitution, to assert their humanity and negate their inferior racial status.
In his narrative, Thomas juxtaposes his family’s home in Babylon, Long Island to Harlem in order to portray Long Island as the mainstream American community that he is excluded from and Harlem as a peripheral community to the dominant one that rejects him. After Piri realizes he is the victim of racial discrimination at a job interview, he decides that he will no longer pursue employment and acceptance in mainstream American society. Instead he finds self-employment and comfort selling and using drugs while living in Harlem.
Thomas writes: “But I was swinging in Harlem, my Harlem, next to which Babylon was like cotton candy – white and sticky, and tasteless in the mouth” (Thomas, 105). Thomas contrasts Harlem to Long Island: the former where he finds belonging and safety among the racially marginalized and underground drug culture where he can alleviate the pain of non-belonging and the latter as exclusionary and unwilling to allow him to pursue upward mobility through legal societal structures.
Despite the handful of lessons that Piri picks up from his father that allow him to retain some sense of self and manhood in the United States, Piri is furious at his father for abandoning him by rejecting the racial plight of Afro-Latinos and aligning himself with whites and a non-black Puerto Rican identity that causes him to exaggerate his foreign origins and deny any African ancestry. Piri confronts his father and expresses his anger at him for rejecting their shared racial identity before he leaves his family on a journey to the southern states: “Poppa, don’t you know where you at?
Or are you seeing it, Poppa, and making like it’s not there…You protect your lying dream with a heavy strain for a white status that’s worthless to a black man” (Thomas 151). Even though Piri leaves home without his father’s support, he has already internalized several of his father’s coping strategies for dealing with American racism which he attempts to employ during his travels and which help lead him to his own survival strategies. Ironically, although he criticizes his father for emphasizing his foreign status as a Puerto Rican, it is the same device that Piri makes use of in the south.
Piri’s brother Jose has the white appearance that Piri and his father both covet. Because of this, Piri believes that his father favors Jose and his other fair-complexioned siblings. He is jealous of Jose’s relationship with their father and the ease with which he is capable of assimilating among the white community in Long Island, which represents mainstream America. Because of this, Jose with his white skin, nearly blond hair and blue eyes, represents the image that Piri once felt he embodied but learns that he does not.
In an effort to try to gain some sympathy from his family about his racial position, he attempts to force Jose to see how he is like him and that they share the same African ancestry. In a discussion with Jose about his plans to go on a journey south with his friend Brew, Piri is determined to make Jose aware that his black skin is also a part of his brother’s heritage. In an angry response, Jose defends his claim to whiteness and insists that Piri is making the choice to identify as black: Jose’s face got whiter and his voice angrier at my attempt to take away his white status.
He screamed out strong, ‘I ain’t no nigger! You can be if you want to be. You can go down South and grow cotton, or pick it, or whatever the fuck they do. You can eat that cornbread or whatever shit they eat. You can bow and kiss ass and clean shit bowls. But – I –am – white! ” (Thomas 145) Jose’s outburst reveals his understanding that being black is identified with the lower rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy. However, what he does not realize is that whereas he has the power to choose a racial identity, whether it is white, black, or Indian, Piri does not.
Piri’s visible racial difference hinders him from assimilating into mainstream America, being socially accepted by whites, or pursuing economic mobility in the same fashion as Jose. Jose explains away Piri and their father’s dark skin by suggesting that in addition to their Spanish ancestry they also have some Native American blood. Native American heritage is seen as an alternative to the black and white binaries used in the United States and allows an individual a place above that of black Americans in the American racial hierarchy.
Jose explains away Piri’s dark skin to his white friends by claiming a Spanish and Indian mixture, however Piri rejects this identification in favor of an Afro-Latino identity. Despite the racial rejection that Piri experiences by his father and brother, Piri comes to terms with his blackness partly through his friendship with two black Americans, Crutch and Brew. In a conversation about the racial politics of the south, Crutch piques Piri’s curiosity about the south by describing a similar dilemma to the one that Piri faces: Places like Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama.
All them places that end in i’s an’ e’s an’ a whole lotta a’s. A black man’s so important that a drop of Negro blood can make a black man out of a pink-asshole, blue-eyed white man. Powerful stuff, that thar white skin, but it don’t mean a shit hill of beans alongside a Negro’s blood (Thomas, 120). Crutch describes to Piri the historical assignment of mixed-raced people to the black race, even if an individual’s ancestry is mainly of European origin. The image conveyed reflects Piri’s own background growing up with family members with the light hair, skin and eyes of Europeans.
Crutch’s description of the importance that “a Negro’s blood” plays in assigning individuals to racial categories in the south initiates Piri’s interest in traveling there. His journey south serves as a quest to gain an understanding of the racial issues that plague him and his father. Although his father has abandoned Piri to experience life as a black man on his own, Piri continues on his travels with his father as an underlying motivator to discover a place of racial belonging that they both can fit comfortably into.
In his southern travels, Piri feels more heavily the weight of his skin color in instances such as when he is forced to sit in the back of the bus despite his remonstrations that he is Puerto Rican or when he is refused service at a whites only restaurant. Despite his initial proclamation that he is interested in going to the south to discover his own identity as a black man and the socio-political constraints of that position, Piri continues to assert his difference and racial privilege as a Latino in the same manner as his father.
Without his father’s guidance, Piri completes his travels down south and through other adventures before deciding to make Harlem his home, which is the only place where he really feels as though he belongs. Brown comments on Piri’s return to Harlem: “Only on the streets of Spanish Harlem, with his boys, does Piri have a sense of ‘home,’ even when he is strung out on heroin and literally homeless, crashing with whomever he can” (Brown, 33).
Piri doesn’t make that transition to black American nor does he find a way to assimilate into mainstream America. In contrast to his father, he chooses to return to Harlem, a marginalized community on the fringe of mainstream culture where he is comfortable with his Afro-Latino identity and where he finds belonging among the same streets where he felt accepted during his youth. Piri remembers that the “world of the street belonged to the kid alone. There he could earn his own rights, prestige, his good-o stick of living.
It was like being a knight of old, like being ten feet tall” (Thomas 107). The gangs and streets serve as Piri’s community as a youth; however, once he grows older, the drug underworld is where he turns to alleviate the pain of not belonging. The youth gang culture that Thomas romanticizes in his memoir has grown to unprecedented heights and takes on a new life in the writing of the subsequent generations. BIBLIOGRAPHY Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Vintage Books, 1967
Sanchez, Marta E. “La Malinche at the Intersection: Race and Gender in Down These Mean Streets. ” PMLA. 113. 1 (Jan 1998) : 117-128. Brown, Monica. Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizens in Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Chicana Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002 Hernandez, Carmen Delores. “They Have Forced Us to Be Universal”. Interview with Piri Thoma, 5/6 Mar. 1995. Retrieved from < http://www. cheverote. com/reviews/hernandezinterview. html >, June 4, 2009
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