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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

“Black Hair” is a brief autobiographical story that deals with Soto’s working experiences. The narrator introduces that theme in the first sentence: “There are two kinds of work: One uses the mind and the other uses muscle.” The work that uses muscle is degrading, but it is the only choice the narrator has during the troubled period he is going through. Muscle work is also the only option for both the small group of workers with whom Soto comes into contact and the larger group who are condemned to such labor by their race or birth.

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The main character is a seventeen-year-old runaway. He takes a romantic swim in the ocean at a Southern California beach, but he must then confront the world of work to survive. He sleeps in abandoned cars and houses and walks miles to Glendale to apply for a job in a tire factory.

The work is exhausting and dirty, and the character has no place to live until he receives his first paycheck. At the tire factory, he is isolated from the black workers by race and the Mexican workers because of his poor Spanish. He is alienated from everyone, without the support that a home supplies, and he must survive with his muscle and what wits he has.

In one scene, the narrator is united with the poor Mexican workers who had spurned him earlier. When immigration authorities make a raid, his boss thinks he is an alien, so he runs with the others. Afterward, those who fled make up outrageous stories about their exploits. For the only time, there is both joy and unity at work. The telling of tales suddenly changes the atmosphere of the factory; it seems to bring the world of the street into the world of work. The spinning of stories also points to the path that Soto would later take. The work of writing would use, of course, not muscle but mind; that type of work would be joyful and meaningful.

Soto portrays the lives of menial laborers at the tire factory as dismal and joyless. The work is monotonous and dirty and makes the workers’ home lives just as empty. Soto asks why they had all arrived at this place but supplies no answer. He merely gives an image that defines this life: “When you picked up a tire, you were amazed at the black it could give off.” The menial and unending work literally marks those caught in it, as the dirt of the San Joaquin Valley marks the farmworkers there. An alternative is suggested in the first sentence of the story: work that “uses the mind.” Soto would take that way, although he continues to write of the life of manual labor that he has escaped. He does not, however, describe mental labor as an alternative in the story. He shows little solidarity with the poor working men; he asks only why these people have reached such a hopeless and degrading state. There is, of course, an understanding of their condition and an implicit sympathy, but Soto does not provide an answer to his own question.

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Themes