Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Writing Race against Literary Whiteness: The Afro-Puerto Rican Outcry of Piri Thomas

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Writing Race against Literary Whiteness: The Afro-Puerto Rican Outcry of Piri Thomas

Article excerpt

Down These Mean Streets opens with an act of self-expulsion. In the initial passages of this popular autobiography, we find the twelve-year-old protagonist, Piri Thomas, running away from home after his father has punished him unfairly. His flight is a premature descent into the streets, the night, and the underworld of Spanish Harlem, where uncanny scenes seem to foretell his fate. After roaming the streets for hours, young Piri decides to return home that night but only to delay the moment of a decisive self-expulsion. (1) That moment would take place when the simmering racial conflict within his nuclear family violently boils over. From the first scenes, Down presents itself as a text marked by signs of the "plague." (2) The opening section in the first chapter forms a dramatic prelude to the themes of crime and punishment that prevail in Thomas's narrative of existential crisis. As the story unfolds, signs of this plague are most visible in the racial hostility that beleaguers Piri, his family, and society at large, and in the endemic abuse of drugs and rampant crime: all of these are forms of mimetic violence that will eventually lead the protagonist to serve a six-year prison sentence.

Indeed, the plague represented in Thomas's autobiography encompasses the violation of many laws and social codes. In this article, the focus will be on one that may appear a lesser transgression: Piri's act of speaking about racism at the core of his Puerto Rican family and of promoting a black identity among its members. (3) For most critics, this racial drama has not passed unnoticed. After all, since the publication of the book in 1967, sociological approaches to the text have viewed family conflict as the origin of the existential trauma that drives Piri to delinquency (Maddock 62; Lane 815; Luis, Dancing 129-30). However, Piri Thomas's transgression--subversive by itself--conveys a more radical meaning when examined in a wider context, that is, the historical development of racial relations and literary traditions in Puerto Rico and Latin America.

In general, critical studies of the racial themes in the autobiography have placed the text in the context of racial ideologies as constructed in the United States, leaving unstudied and therefore unresolved how the text also constructs itself against a Hispanic historical legacy. This is a history influenced by the Hispanic model of literary whiteness imposed by Spain on its colonies to suppress the voices of difference, and by a literary tradition in which naturalized images of the family and the patriarchal house have served as metaphors for national unity. It is in light of the aforementioned model and metaphors that this essay elucidates Piri Thomas's act of speaking from the family nucleus against the discrimination that afflicts him as the darkest sibling, and the significance of the self-expulsion from home. A central argument in this article is that the Hispanic model of literary whiteness is an important referent for the understanding of the autobiography since, as an early determinant of Spanish American racial ideology, it instituted a code of silence that the protagonist of Down would transgress to unleash a state of crisis. Furthermore, Hispanic literary whiteness has contributed to shape one of the ontological zones among which the racial consciousness represented and the writing itself oscillate; such movements will be examined here through the concept of border literature.

The article is organized into four sections. The first traces the development of the Hispanic model of literary whiteness as a relevant background for the exploration of the literary articulation of Afro-Hispanic and Afro-Puerto Rican consciousness. (4) The second section focuses on an analysis of the racial discourses in Down to underscore how Thomas's narrative dramatizes the transgression of a deeply rooted code of silence and to relate the protagonist's identity crisis to the aforementioned violation. …

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