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 Press decided to put out a 30th year special edition of Down These Mean Streets, and I was asked if I would care to write an introduction 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 my guts in an outpouring of long suppressed hurts and angers that had boiled over into an ice cold rage.
Many of us lived through the desperate years of the Great Depression and struggled to survive life in the ghettos, where the invasions of hot and cold-running cockroaches and king-size 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 first-born, 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 and Manchild in the Promised Land (by Claude Brown) and The Wretched Of The Earth (by Frantz Fanon), alas, the same conditions still exist for the poor today, and in fact are worsening, with increased cut-backs of vital programs, which up to now had given some of the poor a fighting chance; all the while, national weapons production climbs.
Further, with higher unemployment and more cut-backs planned, with high quality education already out of reach for most poor children, and with the fast growing number of the homeless which 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 forty seven years ago, 85% of the inmates were white, 15% were black and brown. I visit prisons from time to time and now 15% are white and 85% 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 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 ole 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 bulls-eye by winning the Lotto.
The truth is that 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 two-percent of the population receive 98% of the national wealth? This inequality certainly has to affect the welfare and education of the children of the other 98% of the population, who are forced to get by with a measly 2% 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 have yet to hear of a world-wide cause in the name of the children of 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 the 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”?