Before my love of literature blossomed, no read was more satisfying than a memoir. Memoirs challenge you to confront another’s own lived experiences, and the fact that what you are reading is something true, makes it all the more devastating (or uplifting, or whatever the intended mood is). It’s often the very best memoirs that balance the line of telling a painful experience without self-pity. Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets achieves that in just the right way.
Piri Thomas grew up in the streets of Spanish Harlem in in the 40s and 50s, and this book tells his tale of growing up in poverty, fighting in street gangs, facing racism and classism, drug-addiction, and crime, the latter two lead to eventual incarceration. Much of the book focuses on Piri’s internal struggle as a dark-skinned Afro-Latino – he is Puerto Rican and Cuban but his own family rejects the African-ness of the ancestry. Thus, Piri ends up contemplating his racial and ethnic identity for much of his young life – this even leads to a trip to the South.
You feel his suffering but Thomas never reaches the point of self-pity. It’s a valuable lesson for young people and a great reminder that it’s never too late to change. While Thomas did end up in jail for several years, that was his turning point, as he went on to use his street and prison know-how to reach at-risk youth. Thomas went on to write more works, but his 1967 memoir is still what he is remembered for the most. Well written, well crafted and highly intelligent – I can’t recommend it enough.