Piri Thomas, poet and writer, died Monday October 17, 2011, in his home in El Cerrito, California, surrounded by his wife, Suzie Dod Thomas, and family. His death at age 83 from pneumonia came after a long illness.
What are the odds of a dark-skinned, Puerto-Rican-Cuban-American from Spanish Harlem shooting at a cop and living to tell the story? Pretty slim, but Piri Thomas not only survived after seven years of hard time in Comstock in the 1950s, he also wrote a lifetime of stories for us. Along with Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Piri’s Down These Mean Streets (1967) gave millions of American readers a devastatingly human portrait of life on the other side of the color line. He also wrote a moving account of doing time (Seven Long Times, 1974), a novel, several plays, a book of short stories, and recorded two CDs of poetry and music. He was an extraordinary performer, an inspiration for the genre of spoken word, and a tireless educator for social justice.
He’ll be remembered for writing an iconic book. I’ll remember him for presiding over a literary salon in his picket-fenced home in Berkeley, at which he doled out equal time to neophytes and seasoned writers. For visiting classroom after classroom, spotting the most hostile students in the room and warming their cold hearts with love and passion. And for challenging binaries of race and proclaiming our common humanity.
When Piri Thomas and Suzie Dod Thomas, his partner in everything, married in May 1988, I wrote this for them.
Lives lost before they knew life,
his friends are buried in anonymous pits
in America, not Germany.
Long before Presidential Commissions
and the War on Drugs,
they were lucky to get numbered graves.
Splashing every stone vivid with color,
excavating their remains,
he gives them each a name,
a place in our history.
He exchanged his 38 for a pen
but didn’t give up the bullets.
A straight shooter,
firing from his hip
while somersaulting through the sky,
or from the back seat of a limo
dressed slick in white,
his aim is magically true.
He’ll pierce our hearts
A survivor, he endured street fights,
taking many losses in back alleys.
A collector, he recorded
each small, memorable victory,
inscribed them all,
Leading The Way
She has seen America from its margins.
Straddling its borders,
she could pass through
the front door
if she so chooses.
A white Puerto Rican,
A Latina gringo,
while looking out,
holding up mirrors
She exchanged her diploma for a vision
but didn’t surrender her smarts.
she knows construction,
how to navigate the rocks in the river,
how to steer the water
from mountain top to ocean.
She’ll swim the whole course,
leading the way,
a glint in her eye,
in her hair
an ostrich feather.
Tax-deductible donations in Piri’s memory (payable to Social Justice) should be sent to: Piri Thomas Memorial Fund, c/o Social Justice, PO Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140. Memorials are being planned for the Bay Area, New York, and Orlando. Dates to be announced.