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Afterword to the
Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition

(Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas)


.......Thirty years ago in 1967, Alfred-A. Knopf published my first book, Down These Mean Streets. It has been in print since that time and is now considered a classic of its kind. When Vintage Books decided to put out a thirtieth-anniversary edition of Down These Mean Streets, and I was asked if I would care to write an afterword for the special edition, I was more than glad.

.......Writing Down These Mean Streets was a soul-searing experience for me, in which I forced myself to go back into time to see the sees, do the dos, hear the hears, and feel the feelings over and over and over again, at times feeling certain past traumatic experiences seven times stronger. Down These Mean Streets exploded out of me in an outpouring of suppressed hurts and angers that had boiled over into an ice-cold rage.

.......Many of us who lived through those desperate years known as the Great Depression of the 1930s struggled to survive the hardships of life in the ghettos of our barrio parts of town, where the invasions of hot- and cold-running cockroaches and king-sized rats always seemed to come from other apartments but never from your own. There was always the pain from the pressure of fear brought about by racism: although many black and brown lives were snuffed out at the end of a rope, any means would do, including baseball bats.

.......We all went through the exploitation that came from greed and listened to politicians wearing smiles on their faces that were wasted because they did not match what was in their hearts, making promises that never came to be.

.......In prison, I did my best to keep love alive in me by tuning in to the love that my mother, Dolores Montañez Tomas, had instilled in my heart as a child. I would remember when she lay dying in the poor people's ward in Metropolitan Hospital and I was by her side. She was thirty-six years old and I was her firstborn, her negrito. At night in my cell, from time to time, I would nourish my soul from her love, reliving past warm memories. I believe love is the barrio's greatest strength. The proof is on the faces of the children who, against heavy odds, can still smile with amazing grace as they struggle to survive and rise above the mean streets.

.......I wrote about the conditions of life in the barrio back then, but in spite of books like Down These Mean Streets, Manchild in the Promised Land, and The Wretched of the Earth, alas, the same conditions still exist for the poor today. In fact, they are worsening, with increased cutbacks of vital programs‹which up to now had given some of the poor a fighting chance‹while at the same time national weapons production climbs. Further, with higher unemployment and more cutbacks planned, with high-quality education already out of reach for most poor children, and with the fast-growing number of homeless who come in all colors, our streets have turned into battlegrounds in the Crack Wars. The toll rises as our young people kill each other as well as the innocent in drive-by shootings.

.......Violence roams the streets of America as well as the streets of the world. Today our prisons are bulging with inmates, most of them doing time for drugs. When I was in prison some fortyseven years ago, 85 percent of the inmates were white, while 15 percent were black and brown. I visit prisons from time to time and know that now 15 percent of the inmates are white and 85 percent of the inmates are the blacks and browns.

.......Racism is a most sad and terrible part of America's history. We know for a fact that since the Reconstruction days following the Civil War, racists in white hoods or dressed otherwise have worked very hard to return things to their version of the good ol' plantation days.

.......Children of the poor are not fools, and many are of the mind that, on the whole, society really does not give a crap about them. So when we hear society expressing that "the children are our future," many of us ask, "Whose children and whose future?" The young are full of concern about the growing numbers of hate crimes, church burnings, and racist riots in prisons that are bursting at the seams. As far as I'm concerned, a quality education is the best way to rise above the ghettos and escape out of the trap of poverty‹that is, unless one hits the bull's-eye by winning the lottery.

.......The truth is, when the economy goes into a slump, Americans of all colors fall into worse living conditions. These bad living conditions are not the fault of other colors, so let's quit looking for scapegoats; sadly, the real culprit is, and has always been, a breed named greed. What else can it be, except greed, when it's a known fact that 2 percent of the population receive 98 percent of the wealth? This inequality certainly has to affect the welfare and education of the children of the other 98 percent of the population, who are forced to get by with a measly 2 percent share of the national wealth. Besides, who created their wealth in the first place?

.......There are multitudes who have died fighting throughout history for all kinds of causes. But I've yet to hear of a worldwide cause in the name of the children of the earth. Children are not stupid, they are all born with innate intelligence and the spirit of discernment. I believe every child is born a poet and every poet is born a child. I believe that every child is 360 degrees of the circle of creativity. I believe that every child is born of earth and universe, so how can any child be considered unimportant and dehumanized, relegated to being a minority, a "less than?"

.......Skin color is not a sign of intelligence, no more than it is a sign of stupidity. That is an erroneous theory taught by those who entertain racist views such as those found in The Bell Curve. Children become what they are taught or not taught; children become what they learn or don't learn. We humans are similar to each other, but like fingerprints and cultures, not quite the same, so viva la diferencia and let's get to know one another, born of respect. Hopefully, this will lead us to caring and then sharing with the children of the world.

.......John Kennedy once quipped, "Who said life was fair?" I'd like to say, "So let's make life fair. Let America set a beautiful new standard of caring, not only for our own children, but for all the children of the world."

.......You may ask, "Where do we start?" As a writer, I am concerned with words, names. And names applied to human beings have great importance, since names can be positive or negative, bullets or butterflies. When I was a young muchacho back in those barrio days, I would hear brothers and sisters call each other names like, "Hey, nigger" or "Hey, spic!" I didn't care for those terms back then and I still don't care for them today. When I was a kid running down dark ghetto streets, there was a saying from which I learned wisdom. "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me." The first part about "stones breaking my bones" is right, but the part about "words will never harm me" is bullshit!! Words can harm a child when they are negative, like "nigger" or "spic" or "minority." Why should we repeat the indignity by referring to each other with contemptuous racist terms? We must learn words can be bullets or butterflies, we must learn to say what we mean and mean what we say. For if we are what we eat, we are what we think, so let's not mug each other with racism and hatred, which are not the sole domain of one color.

.......My father Juan, also known as Johnny, once gave me some advice in the art of survival, saying, "Listen, hijo, sometimes you don't look where you're going and you stumble into trouble. You must learn how to spot danger by learning to smell the ca-ca at least twenty miles away, for remember, son; that mierda not only walks on two feet, but it comes in all colors." I moved to exercise my powers of being able to smell ca-ca twenty miles away and to recognize the difference between ca-ca and flowers, when my father stopped me. "Por favor, son, before you start out to smell other people's ca-ca, smell your own first, otherwise you'll get so used to smelling everyone else's, you might forget you have quite a bit of your own." Punto! (How's that for barrio wisdom from Papi, and as for Mami, she'd say, among other things, "Negrito, tell me who you walk with and I'll tell you who you are." Punto!)

.......I would be very happy if we were all to enter a wonderful new era, where the children of earth, and not weapons of war, are considered the top priority. I have been told that what I'm looking for is utopia. So, vaya!!, so what is wrong with that? Imagine, our world in unity, pooling creativity and technology in order to heal the earth of the horrors inflicted on her in the name of greed. Look at the huge amounts of deadly toxic waste buried where children live and animals graze. Look at the poisons dumped in our waters. Wouldn't it be great to live in a world where peace and justice were a foregone conclusion and calamities were only natural and not man-made?

.......In writing Down These Mean Streets, it was my hope that exposure of such conditions in the ghetto would have led to their improvement. But, thirty years later, the sad truth is that people caught in the ghettoes have not made much progress, and in fact, have moved backwards in many respects--the social safety net is much weaker now. Unfortunately, it's the same old Mean Streets, only worse.

.......I was taught that justice wears a blindfold, so as not to be able to distinguish between the colors, and thus makes everyone equal in the eyes of the law. I propose we remove the blindfold from the eyes of Lady Justice, so for the first time she can really see what's happening and check out where the truth lies and the lies hide. That would be a start.

.......Viva the children of all the colors! Punto!


-- Piri Thomas
January 1997


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