Remembering Piri Thomas

I never really knew Piri at all although the one time I met him he was an incredibly generous spirit. It was one of the last times I read poetry on the Lower East Side and he seemed to understand the dificulty I was having communicating and he told me that I had to get past all the interference and just move forward and I thought it was really good advice and I always remembered it. Not because it came from a famous writer but because of the conviction he had when he told me.
Then coincidentally I’m teaching this class on Puerto Rican culture and Tuesday was the day we went over Down These Mean Streets and Julia de Burgos and Willie Perdomo and Felipe Luciano’s “My Pretty Nigger.” Word had’t gotten out about Piri yet, so there I was unwittingly presiding over an elegy. I call it the literature of racialization section and it’s mostly four or five short chapters from Mean Streets, ending with Hung Up Between Two Sticks and I mentioned how Brew kept asking Piri if he’d ever gone down south and the obvious thought came to mind about how for our people coming to New York was like going down south even though we were going north, but Piri really had to go down south because he was the special one and he had that name Thomas. And I said something like going through this painful process of understanding the extent of racism and radicalization made it possible to truly understand and construct one’s identity. And inside I’m thinking how so much of our gran familia never understands how much blackness is a part of them, and still don’t.

So thanks to Piri I didn’t have to live the rest of my life confused about that. He leaves me, just as he did that day I met him, with a gift of clarity.

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