Etheridge Knight’s poem is a resourceful way to think about labeling theory and how it relates to people that have been labeled “insane,” “deviant,” or “criminal.”
As you might already know, labeling theory is a concept that addresses the ways in which people are categorized, tagged, or, yes, labeled. It accounts for how labels are usually the result of biases, prejudices, and stereotypes.
In Etheridge Knight’s poem, Hard Rock is at first labeled a hardened prisoner. The speaker says Hard Rock didn’t take “shit” from anybody, including the prison guards. While Hard Rock’s belligerent label seems to be admirable among the prisoners, it is nonetheless a stereotype. It plays into the notion that prisoners are mean, brutal, and insensitive people.
The poem also addresses how prisoners and criminals can be stereotyped as inhuman. In the second stanza, the speakers likens Hard Rock to a “freshly gelded stallion.” It’s as if Hard Rock is more of an animal than a human. That stereotype could be linked to the aforementioned stereotype. Hard Rock’s alleged lack of humanity might be due to his perceived animality.
Yet after an apparent lobotomy, Hard Rock appears to lose his bellicose label. A “hillbilly” arrives. The hillbilly calls him names, shakes him, and barks in his face. Hard Rock doesn’t do anything. At first, the prisoners don’t want to believe that Hard Rock has changed. They try to convince themselves that he’s faking it. He’s just “being cool.”
It’s almost as if they don’t want to admit Hard Rock’s labels have changed. As your series of questions suggest, there’s lots to unpack here. You could discuss how the criminal label could be deemed heroic while the insane label could be linked to passivity and subservience. Though both labels are stereotypes, one label poses a threat to the constraining order, while the other, clearly, does not.
You could conclude that people act deviantly or violently as a way to combat a sense of injustice, inequality, or oppression. Perhaps if people labeled deviant or criminal had better or more equal access to resources or opportunities, those labels might slide into obsolescence.