Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Soto provided an anecdote explaining the poem’s impetus. For “Black Hair” he wrote, “As a kid, I was no good at baseball. Many of my summers were spent watching games from the bleachers and rooting for a player who was Mexican, like me.” This longing for acceptance in a world in which being different, such as Mexican, was not considered desirable, dominates this poem. The speaker craves positive reinforcement as a person. While many children would experience in their homes this life-affirming need, his home life clearly does not provide it. He did not receive acceptance from his father, who is now dead. His mother seems unable to fulfill her son’s needs as well; compared with a butter knife, her words wound, not nurture—even a butter knife hurts when twisted.

This longing is not exclusive to Latino culture. Psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places belonging just after the physical needs of food and shelter. Soto has written a poem describing the need for community among humans. Human beings do not live in isolation from one another. They live in community, and because of that, they consistently compare and contrast themselves with others. If one is happy with oneself, one does not need to be the “best.” For the speaker, the evidence is in watching Hector and his athletic ability.

The title “Black Hair” creates a fitting image for the entirety of this poem. A most noticeable physical feature, Soto compares “black hair” to a “torch.” Soto makes this feature, the hair on a human head, symbolic of light and the promise of the future. This young boy wants to believe that he can be a player in the game of baseball, and more importantly, in the game of life. Soto’s poem provides powerful imagery and evidence that he can. The young speaker can live this dream because someone like him—a Mexican—can succeed; he has his longed-for role model. The speaker witnesses Hector’s athletic skill in person. While he is “in the bleachers” during this poem, only a fan right now, he believes that he, too, is “brilliant with his body.” Indeed, his belief in himself will cause his success; ultimately, his “black hair” will be his crown of victory. His “black torch of hair” is not “about to go out.”