What Is "Down These Mean Streets" about?
"Down These Mean Streets" is an autobiography about the author's experiences growing up in New York during the mid-twentieth century. The story is told in the first person by Piri Thomas, who at an early age becomes aware of the problems associated with having dark skin and curly hair, the marks of a "disadvantaged race". Piri's family lives in a variety of neighborhoods in and around Spanish Harlem, depending upon his father's employment status. They live for a time in an Italian neighborhood, where Piri is subjected to racial slurs and must fight the Italian boys. His ability to stand up to his tormentors wins him acceptance, and he learns to get along in the world by fighting.
Piri joins a Puerto Rican gang for a time, and when his family moves to Long Island after his father gets a good wartime job, he discovers that he is handicapped by his race even in suburbia, and drops out of school to return to Harlem on his own. He journeys to the South in an attempt to learn more about his own racial identity, then returns to Harlem, where a young woman he loves is awaiting him. Piri becomes involved with heroin and crime, and is eventually sentenced to prison for shooting an officer during a robbery. While in prison he beings to seriously examine his life, and explores the beliefs of the Black Muslims. By the time he is parolled, he is ready to make a sincere attempt to "turn his life around".