The story Piri Thomas tells in his memoir Down These Mean Streets is a story of cultural and ethnic confusion. Thomas, the US-born dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grows up in a multicultural and multilingual Harlem marked by “the roar of multicolored kids, a street blend of Spanish and English with a strong tone of Negro American” (121). Everyone lives cheek-by-jowl, and yet the streets are also carved up into jealously-guarded territorial units. The family moves three blocks, from 111th to 114th Street, and they find themselves on “Italian turf” (24). Immediately picked on by the local gang of Italian kids, Piri wins their respect by obeying a cross-cultural code of omertà and not squealing on them when things go too far and a fight ends up with him half-blinded and in hospital. He has passed a rite of passage, and it turns out that “Italianos wouldn’t be so bad if they spoke Spanish” (39).
However “mean” these Manhattan streets are, they are infinitely preferable to the Long Island suburbs to which the family move later: “a foreign country [that . . .] looked so pretty and clean but it spoke a language you couldn’t dig. The paddy [white] boys talked about things you couldn’t dig [. . .]. No matter how much you busted your hump trying to be one of them, you’d never belong, they wouldn’t let you” (88). The mixture and confusion of the city might be violent and dangerous, but it is better than the cloying hypocrisy of the suburbs, where a girl at a dance treats Piri politely enough to his face, only for him immediately afterwards to overhear her telling her friends: “Imagine the nerve of that black thing” (85). If in Long Island he is repeatedly put back in his place, in Harlem he feels that place might still be somehow up for grabs.
Struggling to stake out his role in a context defined by poverty and social antagonism (in which the disadvantaged are constantly at each others’ throats), Thomas has to resolve the contradiction that he is seen as black even though his family, and particularly his similarly dark-skinned father, insist that as Puerto Ricans they have more in common with whites, that they are perhaps half-white or almost white. His father even accentuates his Puerto Rican accent if it will help distance him from the stigma of blackness. Yet as Piri points out, the dominant white culture tries to maintain an image of purity and inviolability: “Poppa, they don’t care how you feel inside. They don’t care if you look white. No mix, no mingling–for Christ’s sake, even your shit gotta be practically white!” (150). Lambasting him for his self-denial, Piri tries to instill in his father some notion of black pride: “You gonna have to wake up to the fact that you ain’t white, but that’s all right, Poppa, that’s all right. There’s pride galore in being a Negro, Poppa” (151). It is not yet clear, however, that Piri himself quite believes this.
Still confused or torn between different possible identities or identifications, Piri decides to head south, as though he could gain some kind of clarity the other side of the Mason/Dixon line. As he explains to his friend, Brew, an African American who has moved north: “It might just set me straight on a lotta things. Maybe I can stop being confused and come in on a right stick” (127). Brew reluctantly agrees to accompany him, “but only on the condition you cool your role” (128). Yet the heat or passion that Piri feels seems to come precisely from the fact that he does not yet feel he has a “role.”
Nor does the first stop on the journey south enlighten him much; if anything, it just adds to the confusion. In Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for a ship to take them down the coast, Piri and Brew meet a man, working as a waiter, who is almost Piri’s mirror image or distorted double. For this Gerald Andrew West is also a northerner who is seeking some kind of clarity in the south, in his case expecting to discover “the warmth and harmony of the southern Negro, their wonderful capacity for laughter and strength [. . .] the richness of their poverty” (170). Moreover, Gerald, too, has constructed this romanticized image of blackness from a position of marginality and mixture: he is not exactly white, although, “tan-colored” he is “not really very negroid-looking” (170). Yet he is much more certain of his own identity, arguing that this should be a matter of choice and affective affiliation: “I have the right to identify with whatever race or nationality approximates my emotional feeling and physical characteristics” (176). As Piri observes, “Gerald had problems something like mine. Except that he was a Negro trying to make Puerto Rican and I was a Puerto Rican trying to make Negro” (177). They are choosing different roots out of a shared confusion.
But in other ways, Gerald’s and Piri’s strategies will turn out to be the same. What is interesting is that, in addition, Gerald defines himself as a potential author: he is “writing a book on the Negro situation” that he hopes will eventually “contribute in some way to the Negro’s cause” (171). For we know, thanks to the evidence of the book we are reading, that Piri, too, though at this stage he does not know it, will end up a writer. And though, half-way through the memoir, it is still unclear what kind of resolution he may find for his sense of confusion, we do know that it will take the form of the text that we are holding in our hands.