Thursday, October 20, 2011

If In The Moment of Passing: Piri Thomas (1928-2011)

photo © Mark Butkus 2011
Down These Mean Streets: Second Ave. in El Barrio.
If in the moment of passing of an eternity,
I could have the interfaced essence,
The power of looking back at me,
I would say it truly as I would for the world--
Let me be free.

Poet Piri Thomas who was born and grew up in Spanish Harlem before it became romanticized in a song has died at the age of 83. Born Juan Pedro Tomás in 1928, Thomas rose to acclaim with his 1967 memoir, Down These Mean Streets. The book told the tale of how the son of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents not only survived the mean streets of Spanish Harlem and seven years of hard labor at Sing-Sing but how those events inspired him to become the man, the poet that he would become. The poet we now say goodbye to.

    I know that the blood that pounds and pulses its way
    through my veins,
    Does not alter the course toward the star that not only I,
    But all can aim for.
    It is a beauty that we all can reach.
    It is a beauty that we all can teach.

While the Beat Generation had its' Jack Kerouac and the Harlem Renaissance had it's Langston Hughes the Nuyorican Movement had its Piri Thomas. Down These Mean Streets woke up a nation when it was released. Many people regarded it as the Latino answer to the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Down These Mean Streets would soon become a staple of classroom curriculm and Thomas would continue to speak about his childhood and the demons he would overcome. Though he wrote many other books, including plays, and a collection of shorts called Stories from El Barrio it is Down These Mean Streets that he will always be remembered for.

    Given unto each one, what do we truly own, except that
    which we truly are,
    And what we can choose, be it a rainbow, a star,
    Or the agony of a past of present scars.
Giving up bullets for prose Piri Thomas found a voice, or as he put it, "a flow" that allowed him to become not just a cautionary tale but a tale of redemption as well. His refuge was in the local library where, "Reading helped me to realize that there was a world out there far vaster than the narrow confines of El Barrio. I learned that there were people who didn't care about color being a measure of superiority or inferiority. What mattered was the dignity of one's heart and the honor of one's word."

Enveloping these words of passing are Piri Thomas' own words of passing from "If In The Moment of Passing." A poet never dies if his words continue to beat in another heart. Piri's website is a tremendous resource for those who want to explore his life and the culture of El Barrio. A selection of his poems are there for you to try on. Allow his poems into your heart so that he may live another day.

    I am not a poet who makes things unreal,
    I am a poet who makes one feel the strength that is
    in our people.
    Human beings upon the face of this beautiful earth,
    Who must know their dignity, their honor, no matter their race,
    No matter their creed--from the moment of their birth.
    Born of earth and universe. Punto.

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