Warning: This book contains extreme language, violence, drug use and scenes of a sexual nature. Reader discretion is advised.
Despite—or perhaps because of—its explicit content, Down These Mean Streets seems honest and in earnest. It is the memoir of author Piri Thomas, a man who knew that “since the Reconstruction days following the Civil War, racists in white hoods or dressed otherwise have worked very hard to return things to their version of the good ol’ plantation days,” but also believed that “love [was] the barrio’s greatest strength” (334-335). These ideas are among the many rooted in Thomas’s memoir.
The story begins in 1941 when Piri is just twelve years old and, as Thomas writes, “the Great Hunger called Depression was still down on Harlem” (8). Thomas’s authorial voice is natural—born in the streets—and his diction seems to echo the language of struggle and strife. On page one, for instance, Thomas writes: “The streets of Harlem make an unreal scene of frightened silence at 2 a.m. Like everything got a layoff from noise and hassling. Only the rumbling of a stray car passing by or the shy foraging of a cat or dog make the quietness bearable (emphasis added).” In addition to this skillful use of language, Thomas peppers the memoir with Spanish words, giving it its own sound.
At just twelve years of age, Piri, whose mother describes him as a Puerto Rican moreno (which translates to dark brown, almost black), begins to consciously experience racism. The Italian boys on his block call him “n*****” and pick fights with him. Piri even feels isolated on the basis of color in his own home because his mother and his siblings are several shades lighter than him. Only Piri’s father’s skin is as dark as his own, but Piri cannot connect with him because he is distant and rejects his own African blood. Although Piri initially clings to the idea that he is “Puerto Rican” and not black, one of his friends, Brew, engages him in a serious conversation about his appearance and his racial identity, causing the two to venture down South. While the trip helps Piri better understand his identity, it sharpens his hatred of white people and the pain they have caused both in his lifetime and throughout history.
Piri’s pain and rage drive him to street fighting, drugs and armed robbery—a downward spiral that culminates when he is sent to prison for shooting a police officer at twenty-two years of age. Yet Piri’s heart, which is often conceived as steadfastness in conflict despite its going way beyond this, is not exhausted by the hardship he endures.
Down These Means Streets is a tour de force, which touches on subjects as great and universal as racism, alienation, poverty, hate, love, friendship and sexuality and others as specific as the WPA, Jim Crow law, the hypo-descent rule, “passing” and the Nation of Islam. It is a gripping story, a literary phenomenon and, as written by The New York Times Book Review, “a linguistic event.”