On October 17, 2011, one of the great prison writers died. Piri Thomas, best known for his memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), provided readers all over the world with a glimpse of how factors like racism and poverty encourage incarceration, and he articulated a version of Nuyorican identity years before the founding of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe popularized the concept.
In Seven Long Times (1974)–an additional, lesser known volume of memoir–Thomas recounts the years that he spent in prison, and his efforts to bring about social justice continued for many decades after this publication. One blogger is now crediting Thomas with having the vision to prophecy the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Thomas believed in the human dignity of all people, as is evidenced by his poem “If in the Moment of Passing,” quoted here from his website:
If in the moment of passing an eternity,
I could have the interfaced essence,
The power of looking back at me,
I would say it truly as I would for the world–
Let me be free.
I know that the blood that pounds and pulses its way
through my veins,
Does not alter the course toward the star that not only I,
But all can aim for.
It is a beauty that we all can reach.
It is a beauty that we all can teach.
Given unto each one, what do we truly own, except that
which we truly are,
And what we can choose, be it a rainbow, a star,
Or the agony of a past of present scars.
I am not a poet who makes things unreal,
I am a poet who makes one feel the strength that is
in our people.
Human beings upon the face of this beautiful earth,
Who must know their dignity, their honor, no matter their race,
No matter their creed–from the moment of their birth.
Born of earth and universe. Punto.
Que en paz descanse, maestro. You shall not be forgotten. Punto.