Born in Harlem in 1928, Piri Thomas was a child of the Depression. His mother was a light-skinned Cuban; his father a Puerto Rican whose darker complexion Thomas alone of all the children inherited. The cruel racism that he experienced within his own family, in the dehumanizing environment of New York City's ghetto streets, and in the white suburbs, impelled the youthful Thomas to search for his true racial identity, first in the American South and then traveling the worm in the Merchant Marine. Thomas pursued this quest with total and searing honesty. Later he was driven by rage, poverty, and despair into involvement with crime, including armed robbery. In 1955 he ended up in prison. There he found both the inner strength to survive this ordeal and his own "voice." Now he was able to write with tremendous candor and integrity and to free himself from his past. Emerging as a parolee in 1961 after six horrifying years in prison, Thomas joined the Harlem Writers' Guild. His electrifying, psychologically penetrating autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets was published in 1967 and won him instant and lasting acclaim. Since then he has published Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand and Seven Long Times, both autobiographies; and Stories from El Barrio as well as numerous articles, many in The New York Times.
In addition to his writing, Piri Thomas has devoted much time and effort to helping troubled youths and prison inmates overcome the terrors and burdens of their past and of the oppressive prison system that he, too, knows from the inside. A popular speaker, Thomas has addressed audiences at many universities including Columbia, Yale, Cornell, Howard, Rutgers, Fordham, Brown, and Erlangen in Germany.
This interview was conducted on January 28, 1998, in an apartment at 410 East 6th Street in Manhattan and supplemented by telephone conversations with him at his home in Berkeley, California, on March 8; and in El Cerrito, California, on April 12 and 23, 1998.
Interviewer: At what point in prison did you begin to write about your experiences?
Piri Thomas: I had kept a diary in the Merchant Marine, and it was stolen with my duffel bag from the Seamen's Home in lower Manhattan. The main work in prison was surviving, and I was learning another language, the language of positive thinking, and I began to want to write to find expression for what my life was all about. I was always a storyteller. I came from a long, long, long line of storytellers. We passed our history on by word of mouth, for centuries and centuries. Slave masters would have us killed for even learning how to read, and it was the same in Puerto Rico. If we learned some history, we passed it around. We had no books. We passed it down to little children so that we wouldn't forget. Those who were found expounding these thoughts in those days were immediately killed. So our minds were programmed that way.
Interviewer: So you knew that you had slavery in your background?
Piri Thomas: Of course. Anywhere you went in the street or wherever you talked to someone, they would tell you what happened. The reason they didn't talk about it in front of white men: the white men would kill them. The white men didn't even want them to talk English and to be able to say things like "a conglomeration of a manifestation." No, they wanted you to say "yousah, boss; yes, sir, boss." You had to play a part to survive. You did things that you didn't want to do because you had children, and besides, people who had a hatred like that, they would kill you just from boredom. You didn't count as a human being simply because they had learned how to dehumanize people by making them sub-humans, varmints. That's the God's honest truth. Racism comes in all the colors. Just like greed. Greed comes in all the colors; it's just that some colors who have the power to make right by might took it all. So we had democracies that were military democracies. …