Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Poem “There Are Black” is one of the first poems he wrote after he was released from prison as a part of his anthology “Immigrants in Our Own Land.” This poem as well as the others in this anthology and many in his portfolio of works portrays his experiences of prison dynamics. As evidenced in this poem, racial aspects of prison life are very prevalent and segregating. In an interview, Baca expresses his dislike of prisons and other institutions that deprive people of their humanity. This poem captures these sentiments through observing the brutal nature of prison. In capturing this experience, Baca’s free verse poem integrates a number of subtle stylistic methods of establishing a dichotomy between prisoners and guards and illustrating the horrors of an institutional system that is designed to remove culture and humanity from those who are a part of it.
The first stanza of “There Are Black” describes the segregated nature of interactions between the guards and prisoners. He enumerates Black, brown, white and red guards as references to the different races of the prison guards who seem to only interact with prisoners of the same race. In this context, the segregation seems to be a natural process instituted by the prison. Additionally, Baca establishes the dichotomy of prisoners versus guards as a relationship that is based on systematic brutalization. Lines one and two describe the black prison guards “slamming cell gates/ on black men.” Baca likens this practice to handlers controlling animals with “gates” that control when the prisoners move in and out of their cells. Black men are shut off by black guards, Hispanic inmates are labeled with numbers on their back connoting the fact that they are the property of the state, and Native American prisoners and guards are stoic and indifferent towards each other, reflecting a racial stereotype. It is the white prisoners and white prison guards that seem to have a camaraderie established, as they are laughing with each other. Baca creates the white prisoners as not stigmatized by their fellow white prison guards, suggesting an institutional preference towards white American culture. The prison guards can relate to the white prisoners better, not seeing the need to label them as property or isolate them in their cells.
The pauses between the different descriptions in the first stanza reinforce the segregated nature of the prisons and its continuous nature. One possible reading of this effect is Baca looking at four different areas of the prison perhaps he is looking in all four directions. Creating four racial groups in the first stanza makes the segregation seem prevalent around the prison. There is no interracial interaction. Another reading of these pauses is as time lapses where he witnesses the four different events throughout an extended period of time, emphasizing the continuity of the situation. The dichotomy between prisoners and guards is also emphasized through the line breaks in the poem. Line three begins “And brown guards saying hello to brown men” briefly creating the impression that there is some parity between them by using the word “men.” However, the following line “with numbers on their backs” (4) reemphasizes the dichotomy between prisoners and guards; the numbers characterize the inmates as the property of the guards and the reality of the impersonal nature of prison. Baca creates a similar effect in the penultimate full stanza with the line “And the other convicts, guilty/ of nothing but their born color” (39-40) emphasizing the racism within the prison. The meaning of the first line is changed entirely by the second line. As a stylistic device, this emphasizes the arbitrary ways that the prisons categorize these people and turn them into animals through brutalization.
In the second stanza, Baca compares the prison dynamic to that of an “antpile” (8) making the relationship between guards and prisoners even more clear. The guards are given “badged wings” (10) that allow them to brutalize the prisoners as they wish; there is no common racial experience shared between prisoners and guards. In an interview with Progressive Radio, Baca recounts his experiences with the different prison guards as a motivator for his poetry writing. He was routinely beaten by guards who deemed him to be a threat to prison security for his poetry writing and refusal to perform assigned work details. This gives the metaphor more meaning in the context of Baca’s own life and experience in prison. Baca is highly critical of the institutional nature of prison that deprives prison guards of their humanity; it is exchanged for a badge of power and authority over other people regardless of any cultural connections that they might have. In describing how the prison guards are “turning off their minds like watertaps” (12), Baca points out how easy it is for this transformation to occur; the guards are also transformed by this institutional system. The result is very bleak, removing interpersonal dynamics between prisoners and guards.
Baca begins the third stanza with the line “it gets bad” (15) as a prelude to the descriptions of the horrors that he has witnessed in prison. The acts against humanity that occur with the prison walls are much more severe than the sheer segregation that is routine. Baca himself was severely beaten by a number of guards; one guard broke all of his ribs and his jaw in a single beating (Baca). When prisoners commit suicide, the guards are able to clean up the messes left by the prisoners without any expressions of sympathy for the conditions of prisoners; they respond as members of an institution who do not care for the people who have just died. Baca stresses this in his line “their people/ their own people slashing their wrists” (18) in an attempt to emphasize the ignorance of the guards who passively watch the brutality that surrounds them. Invoking the importance of culture in this poem stresses the dangers of institutions in being oppressive of humanity. The fact that the guards do vomit when they are exposed to these elements reveals that they are still human despite the fact that they are prison guards, making it seem unfortunate that they are in a position where they are exposed to this. However, these sentiments are dismissed as the guards are observed performing a job and then returning to normalcy where they passively watch prisoners fight with each other and kill themselves. From this perspective, there is something inherently wrong with the institutional nature of prisons that trains guards to view members of their own communities so impersonally; this same institution drives prisoners to desperate measures. The indifference expressed by these prison guards is a result of the institutional mindset that has the potential to eradicate cultural identities that are deemed dangerous.
In the paragraph that follows, Baca indicts the mindset of the prison guards who take pride in brutalizing the inmates of the prison. He writes that the guards “go to the store and buy new boots,/ and the longer they work here the more powerful they become” (26). The guards profit from brutalizing the prisoners with rewards of power and money. They are responsible for making the prison the “blood-rutted land” (24) that Baca constructs. Their boots are a symbol of power; this symbol is evident in other works of Chicanos/as including Norma Cantu who typically associate them with the masculinity of white men in their oppression of Chicanos/as.
Baca also creates a metaphor of a mummy in this stanza that likens the prison guards to a supernatural being that has unexplainable powers that overwhelms them. The prison turns the guards into these monsters by rewarding them for continually exerting their power and authority over the inmates. The mummy metaphor also emphasizes the lack of humanity in the guards by comparing them to a dead being with supernatural power. This power has the ability to “command so many men” (32) while simultaneously “utterly disgusting in ignorance” (31); Baca characterizes the power of the institution as dangerous for its ability to strip people of their humanity.
The mummy metaphor is followed by another metaphor that compares the inmates to cobras. Baca mentions two times in as many lines that they are at the feet of the mummy, illustrating how they are at the mercy of the institutional power. These inmates “become cobras sucking life out of their brothers” (35), characterizing the dynamic between prisoners as brutal cannibalism. Cultural and ethnic allegiances are voided by the institutional power that pits everyone against each other for whatever they can get. Because they are at the feet of the mummy, Baca implies how this is a planned consequence of the institutional power. Removing these allegiances weakens the strength of the community when they are forced to fight amongst themselves for “what morsels they can” (38), insinuating that these materials are necessities within the prison. This language also highlights the desperation of these prisoners to fight for whatever materials they can get their hands on, as they are embroiled with enhancing their material wealth in prison.
The final stanzas create a metaphor out of sand and dust that comes from the wounds in the hearts of the prisoners that Baca characterizes as “innocent” (40). In the second stanza, Baca makes an analogous metaphor for the hearts of the prison guards, who have “insulated pipes… that carry pale weak water to their hearts” (13-14). In this context, the dust that exudes from the hearts of the inmates is a metaphor for the connection to their community that they have not lost since they were imprisoned. These particles have the power to transcend the prison barriers, as they are a part of a greater community. In contrast, the institutional community is extremely insular and devoid of any culture, as it is described as “pale” and “weak.” Rather than being confined to these pipes of the institution, the cultural identity is able to float freely in the wind. In this way, the bleeding takes on a more positive connotation outside of the prison than it did previously. This bleeding of sand and dust allows the inmate to continually be a part of a community outside of prison, while bloodshed within the prison is done destructively.
There is a noticeable tone shift in the last stanza where Baca points out the existence of these grains of dust and addresses the reader to look closely to see the seeds of a culture around them. Baca addresses the reader earlier in the second and third stanzas, and then waits until the last lines to address the reader again. The effect of this calls on the reader to internalize and contemplate the metaphors and natures of prisons, as well as the significance of cultures. Baca creates metaphors to describe the ways that humanity and culture are removed from inmates who are brought into a world of brutalization and competition that isolates them from their cultures and communities.
In criticizing the institutions of prisons, Jimmy Santiago Baca makes subtle references to the Chicano/a identity among others that are stripped away by prisons. These prisons turn people on each other for competition of drugs and other resources in an attempt to make them conform to institutional standards. While institutionalized, inmates often forget their culture and focus on survival. At the same time, Chicano/a prison guards are implied betrayers of their culture, as they take part in reducing the inmates to the level of animals through systematic brutalization. In an interview, Baca remarked that as a Chicano living in America, we're constantly inundated and assaulted with what we're not, so we constantly find ourselves relating to what we're not” (Aldama 119). The title of the poem “I See Black” is suggestive of this loss of identity through institutionalization, as everyone who is a part of the institution becomes deprived of their culture and their individuality as a part of this process; everyone is black and institutionalized. Inmates and prison guards alike can easily become dehumanized through assimilation to the constructs of an institution and rejecting their cultural identities.
Aldama, Frederick Luis. "An Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca." The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (2005): 113-127.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. Biography. n.d. 6 March 2011
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. Jimmy Santiago Baca Matthew Rothchild. 23 February 2009.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. "There Are Black." Daniels, Jim. Letters to America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. 31-32.