This introspective poem uses the everyday experience of a child to reflect on isolation and alienation in a community. While Soto expresses that children are not immune to the harsh realities of the world, he presents a hopeful view on overcoming negative self-perception.
‘Black Hair’ by Gary Soto serves as the opening poem for the anthology of the same name. In the work, an eight-year-old child attends a baseball game to see his idol, Hector Moreno. Through his admiration for Moreno, the speaker can learn to accept who he is.
In ‘Black Hair,’ Soto offers an introspective look at ideas of acceptance through the lens of Mexican American child. The child, who represents Soto, feels alienated in his community due to his physical characteristics. The poem opens with a description of a baseball game, a favorite pastime for the speaker. We’re introduced to Hector Moreno, a Mexican baseball player whom the speaker admires. For the remainder of the poem, Soto reflects on the impact of positive role models on a child’s self-perception.
The main themes of ‘Black Hair’ are alienation and self-perception. The speaker feels isolated in his community due to his Mexican heritage. As a Mexican American child, Gary Soto felt difficulty fitting in with his predominantly white community. In the poem, the figure of Hector Moreno, a baseball player of Mexican descent, represents what the speaker hopes to achieve and the affirmation he seeks from his community. Through his admiration of Hector, the speaker can begin to accept who he is.
At eight I was brilliant with my body.
In July, that ring of heat
We all jumped through, I sat in the bleachers
Of Romain Playground, in the lengthening
Shade that rose from our dirty feet.
The game before us was more than baseball.
It was a figure–Hector Moreno
Quick and hard with turned muscles,
His crouch the one I assumed before an altar of worn baseball cards in my room.
Three stanzas make up this introspective poem about idols. Soto begins his poem by positioning himself as an eight-year-old child attending a baseball game in July. The opening line, “At eight I was brilliant with my body.” presents a sense of innocence and wonder that is often associated with childhood. The stanza continues to describe the environment that the speaker finds himself in.
The speaker notes the heat of the day, facing it head-on to sit in the bleachers. The speaker also refers to the “dirty feet” he and the other children have. Despite the less-than-favorable conditions of the day, the speaker is focused only on the excitement of the game. The second half of the first stanza identifies Hector Moreno, a baseball player of Mexican descent, whom the speaker admires.
Immediately the speaker lets us know that the game is more than it appears. The framing of the baseball game as a symbol of the speaker’s self-acceptance is a recurring theme in the poem. The final line of this stanza refers to an altar, evoking the idea of religious practice. Religious idols are objects of worship, and this word choice exemplifies the reverence that the speaker feels for Moreno.
I came here because I was Mexican, a stick
Of brown light in love with those
And mother was the terror of mouths
Twisting hurt by butter knives.
The speaker continues voicing his admiration at the beginning of the second stanza, explaining that Moreno embodies the qualities that the speaker wants to achieve. As a Mexican American child, the speaker looks up to Moreno because he can see aspects of himself in the baseball player. For the speaker, Moreno represents the idealized version of himself. The speaker describes himself as “in love with those/Who could do it”. Though presented in the context of the baseball game, we know from the first stanza that it’s beyond that. Hector Moreno, a player of Mexican descent, has succeeded in the speaker’s view.
The speaker wants to emulate that success but does not have the self-confidence to do so. He continues by acknowledging these insecurities. The speaker describes his physical characteristics, framing them as burdensome in some way to his success. He references his titular black hair, a quality that alienates him and makes him feel different from many of those around him. The ending of the second stanza shifts away from the baseball game by discussing the speaker’s parents and his home life.
The speaker’s description of his parents is contrasted by his view of Hector Moreno. While Moreno is a positive role model for the speaker, his parents are not. Soto’s father passed away in 1957 when Soto was five years old. The speaker’s father is dead, absent from his life, and his mother is implied to be verbally abusive.
While brief, this section serves to remind the reader of life’s harsh truths, despite the baseball game’s optimism and bravado. This reinforces the central theme of acceptance of identity. The speaker idolizes Moreno because, unlike his parents, Moreno is a Mexican adult to that he can look up to. From the description of his physical characteristics, it’s clear that the speaker does not have self-confidence, likely fostered by the absence of his father and the toxicity of his mother. Where these figures fail, Hector Moreno remains an inspiration to the speaker, allowing him to find value in who he is.
In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body.
Waving players in and stomping my feet
Beautifully, because we were coming home
To the arms of brown people.
The third stanza begins by returning to the baseball game, mirroring the opening line of the first stanza, “At eight I was brilliant with my body.” with “In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body.” Now, the brief respite to speak on the realities of life has ended, and we’ve returned to the present. The speaker continues, describing the energy and emotion that he feels in the bleachers.
The speaker is invested in the game, cheering on the players and sweating in the July heat. “White shirts” is likely referencing the color of the uniforms worn by the players. “And bit my arm through the late innings” references an action that is often done when someone is excited or anxious. Soto reminds the reader that while the speaker’s home life may have been difficult, being able to experience the baseball game allows him to enjoy the moment. The intensity of his excitement is apparent.
The final part of the third stanza describes Moreno’s skill as a baseball player and the speaker’s desire to emulate him. As Moreno rounds the bases, the speaker imagines that he is the baseball star everyone is cheering on.
In his imagination, the speaker notes his face is flared, full of the pride and confidence that he hopes to achieve. He again describes his black hair, but this time he refers to it as “beautiful” instead of the relatively negative view of his physical characteristics shown previously. In those moments rounding the bases, he too is a winner, loved and admired by his community. The speaker’s insecurities and the alienation he feels can be remedied by acceptance and affirmation from those around him.
The wonder and naivety of childhood, while the thought of as protection from the difficulties of life, do not make children immune from difficult concepts like self-confidence or feelings of isolation. In Soto’s mind, adults in a community should serve to foster affirming and welcoming environments, so children can feel comfortable with who they are and their place in the community.
The speaker’s black hair is a representation of his identity as a Mexican American child. In the poem, we see the speaker’s hair initially described as a factor in his feelings of alienation. Through his admiration for Hector Moreno, the speaker can accept that his black hair is one of the characteristics that makes him who he is. In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker describes his hair as “beautiful,” recognizing it as something that connects him to his community.
‘Black Hair’ is written with a nostalgic tone that invokes the childlike sense of wonder the speaker experiences at the baseball game. Briefly, in the second stanza, the tone shifts to a harsh look at the speaker’s home life. The third and final stanza returns to the excitement of the baseball game before ending on a hopeful note as the speaker imagines himself receiving the acceptance he desires.
Like many of Soto’s works, ‘Black Hair’ serves as a reflection on the daily experience of a Mexican American. The poem, in particular, focuses on the alienation that children can experience in a community where they don’t feel accepted.
Gary Soto is considered a contemporary American poet. His works focus on realism, based on his experiences and the world around him. His works are introspective, allowing Soto to express his emotions through his realistic storytelling.
If you enjoyed ‘Black Hair’ by Gary Soto, you might enjoy other introspective poems.
- ‘Poetry’ by Pablo Neruda – is an introspective free verse poem about the author’s discovery of his love of poetry.
- ‘Icarus’ by Edward Field – is a somber poem about Icarus in the modern world, alienated and upset that his life has become one of conformity.
- ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine – is a bleak free verse poem about the alienation and oppression of Black Americans who moved during the Great Migration.