Piri Thomas Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Piri Thomas 1928–

(Born John Peter Thomas) American autobiographer, short story writer, dramatist, and filmmaker.

Thomas, a Negrito (half black/half Puerto Rican) from Spanish Harlem, began writing while in prison of his experiences as a drug addict, street punk, and convict. Building his literary career out of a quest for self-respect and self-identity, he has been compared to James Baldwin and Claude Brown.

In 1967 Thomas published Down These Mean Streets, the first volume of his autobiography, which covers his life from the ages of 12 to 28. Combining urban street talk and Spanish phrases with poetic original images and stream-of-consciousness technique, it was a powerful reflection of the ghetto subculture, an eloquent document of Thomas's fight for survival and escape, and a detailed examination of the need for machismo, the male reputation for cool and courage. Underneath its raw, stark situations and language, the book was a Bildungsroman of Thomas's education in life and search for a value system. It was banned from several libraries for its language, sex scenes, and descriptions of drug use. Most critics agreed that the book's uniqueness and excitement made up for its technical flaws, and that it was worth reading as literature rather than pure sociology. Thomas was hailed both as a survivor and a distinctive new voice.

Subsequent books have failed to attract the enthusiastic audience of Down These Mean Streets. The autobiographical Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand and Seven Long Times, removed in time from the experiences being related, lack the emotional intensity of the earlier book. Thomas is also the author of Stories from El Barrio, a collection for young adults.

Despite his limitations, Thomas has proven himself to be an effective, well-respected writer whose works have consistently shown spirit and honesty. "I have a responsibility," he has written, "to say it like it is." For young people who identify with Thomas's searches, his works well accomplish his statement. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)