Down These Mean Streets: “You can’t make yesterday come back today.”

The last half of Down These Mean Streets tackled the prevalent division in society mainly concerned with race. These conflicts result in stereotypes, discrimination, brawls, and identity crises. Though there were numerous key ideas in Thomas’s memoir, I want to analyze the attitudes of racial identity and societal disturbance regarding 3 important characters; Brew, Gerald Andrew West, and Piri. Those these individuals have profound conversations with one another, they each hold differing views on belonging in a segregated society.

The first (and probably most vocal) character that has strong beliefs about discrimination and maltreatment is Brew, who believes that “if you white, tha’s all right. If you black, da’s dat,” revealing that he views society as a hierarchical institution that sticks African-Americans at the bottom. Though his beliefs aren’t far from the truth of the world depicted in the book, he is cynical about someone being anything more than the colour of their skin. As he informs Piri repeatedly that “his skin makes him a member of the black man’s race,” this displays that Brew does not believe one’s heritage, culture, or ethnicity matters as the “paddies” and society as a whole treat others based on what they shade of skin they see. Despite understanding the plight that African-Americans must endure, Brew is “proud of being a Negro.” There are expressions and strategies that Brew remembers from his childhood in Mobile that have stuck with him, protecting himself from the systemic oppression of White over Black. Though Brew has these pessimistic and almost hopeless ideas of how society operates, it’s obvious that life in Mobile has shaped those beliefs profoundly. As we see in Brew’s home town, where Piri tries to order at a restaurant and is ignored and almost beaten by white patrons. This snippet of life in Mobile essentially forces any coloured person living there, just like Brew, to view society as oppressive, unjust, and discriminatory in order to not only find a place where one belongs but in order to survive as well.

The Brew’s negative thoughts reveal themselves when he meets Gerald Andrew West, a mixed-race Pennsylvanian that wants to write a book about “the warmth and harmony of the southern Negro.” Mr. West has black and Spanish ancestry, but the majority of his bloodline has come from White-European backgrounds. As he and Brew talk, he says how he “feels white… looks white… thinks white; therefore [is] white,” but wants to connect with his black and Spanish roots. Trying to connect to his black heritage, he has traveled to Norfolk to enjoy the company of other African-Americans, while connecting to his Spanish side takes the form of studying the Spanish language. Mr. West represents a man who struggles to find his own identity, as it would be simple for him to accept his whiteness but strives to find his true self. Gerald leaves the bar saying to Brew that he will write his book through both black and white lenses to do justice to the black community and bridge the divide between clashing racial groups. Though he is misunderstood by Brew, he continues on the path to find his identity, something that Piri Thomas has struggled with for most of his life.

In the beginning of the book, Piri has unfortunate experiences with racial divides whether it be fighting Italians on the street or being rejected by a white girl at a highschool dance. Brew comes along and proceeds to confuse an already struggling individual by saying he is no more than the colour of his skin; black. However, the progression of Thomas is truly inspiring as his time in prison changes his outlook on the division in society. After being sentenced for 5-15 years at Sing Sing, Piri continues to play it “cara palo”, showing no real emotion to anyone other than to friendly Hispanic and Latino convicts. Soon he is transferred to Comstock, where he begins to comprehend the pecking order of prisons; “At the top are con men… Just beneath them are disbarred lawyers and abortionists… In the middle are the heist men. Thieves and burglers rank just below them. And at the bottom are rapists, faggots, crooked cops, and junkies.” This recognition of the prison pecking order is the start of Piri changing his mentality of social division for the sole reason that the pecking order did not include race. In prison, it didn’t matter what someone’s skin colour was, at least not as much as the outside world. A continuation of Piri’s mental transformation continues as he displays good behaviour practically throughout the entire duration of his sentence. Occasional fights spring up, but never to harm anyone; only to show “heart.” In prison, Piri also admires a friendly white cop, Casey, showing that he drops even more barriers and begins to see the good in some police officers. Finally, the last change Piri experiences is learning about Islam. Though he doesn’t keep with the religion after his sentence, the religion teaches him about community, belonging, faith, and the power of an individual’s actions. Through his lengthy time in prison, Piri develops new beliefs and practices that, when he is freed from prison, give him the tools to tear down discriminatory barriers and create a meaningful life for himself rather than living an unhealthy and addictive lifestyle in the “Mean Streets” of the Spanish Harlem.

-Curtis HR

2 thoughts on “Down These Mean Streets: “You can’t make yesterday come back today.”

  1. This is a good précis of some key aspects of the second half of the book. Though I miss a bit your own take on all these issues, as they are portrayed in Thomas’s text. But so be it.

    One thing that comes to me reading your comments is the way in which the book shows how identity can change dramatically according to place, that is, according to where you are: in the city or the suburbs; in the North or the South; in prison or outside. In itself this is already a challenge to any essentialism, that is, to any notion that identity is fixed or essential. And yet there are continuities… I wonder what you think endures throughout Piri’s various movements and travels? What stays the same, if anything? What are the continuities?

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  2. Hey Curtis! Parts of your post reminded me a lot of what I touched on in mine. You talk about the ways in which identity can change according to place (like Jon noted), and this was one of the things I found most interesting about this book. Like Jon says, this is a direct contradiction to the idea that identity is fixed. Besides identity, other things don’t seem to change, as Piri notes. For example, Piri says: “what a blank that was. I should have known, nothing is run the same, nothing stays the same. You can’t make yesterday come back today.” (326). However, on the very next page, Piri goes back to visit his old building and says “the mood was the same” (327). There are other examples of where Piri makes note of things that have changed, but it’s almost as if he doesn’t want to “recognize” that they have changed. I hope that made sense!

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