It is said that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Throughout history many important leaders have demonstrated that the power of writing is stronger than the tyranny of man. These men were often incarcerated for fighting for what they believed in. Heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are a few of many who fought injustice or unfair living conditions and made a difference in the lives of their fellow men by speaking out through their writings. Jimmy Santiago Baca is also a man who has been able to change lives through his works.
His short story, Coming Into Language, demonstrates the immense power of writing to give not only faith and hope, but purpose, to both an individual and an entire community. Although Jimmy Santiago Baca was illiterate and came from humble origins, he not only was able to teach himself to read and write while in prison, but ultimately became a remarkable poet with insight into the living conditions of the Apache, of the Chicanos and of America’s poorest citizens. “Through language I was free. I could respond, escape, indulge; embrace or reject the earth or the cosmos.
I was launched on an endless journey without boundaries or rules, in which I could salvage the floating fragments of my past, or be born anew in the spontaneous ignition of understanding some heretofore concealed aspect of myself. ” (Baca) Since leaving prison in 1979, Jimmy Santiago Baca has made a difference in the lives of countless people throughout the United States. “Baca has devoted his post-prison life to writing and teaching others who are overcoming hardship. His themes include American Southwest barrios, addiction, injustice, education, community, love and beyond.
He has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries, and universities throughout the country. ” (jimmysantiagobaca. com) Although Jimmy Santiago Baca’s story is unlike those of freedom fighters of the twentieth century, it is important to note that many similarities exist. Baca was thrown in jail with nothing. He had no way to fight the unjust accusations that were made against him and was locked behind bars for decades. He was unable to express himself because he lacked the education and the funding to do so.
Because he wanted to earn his GED, Baca was constantly tortured, both mentally and physically, to make him bend to the rules of the system. “There were beatings, shock therapy, intimidation” (Baca 38). Although the guards in prison tried to break him, Baca stayed strong throughout. The reason that he was able to endure years of incarceration and persecution was that he found salvation through reading and writing poetry. Coming Into Language emphasizes the power of the pen for an ordinary man who is forced to fight for his dignity and free will with extraordinary courage.
Baca was able to teach himself the skills that he would later put to use helping others like him. There are many examples of other great men who were wrongly incarcerated and who have used their power of persuasion through writing and non-violent resistance as a way to better not only their own situation, but more importantly the condition of their people as a whole. An excellent example of these freedom fighters was Mahatma Gandhi. He lived in India during the time of the British Raj and was indignant about the occupation of his homeland by a foreign nation.
Gandhi was concerned about the rights of his fellow countrymen, including women’s rights and the rights of those who were called ‘untouchables’; people of the lowest caste who had no rights in the eyes of traditional Indian law. He pioneered a satyagraha, which is a resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience. The most important element of this philosophy was ahimsa, or non-violent resistance. He began by writing articles in the paper while living in South Africa. When he returned to India in 1921, he organized mass protests of farmers, peasant and factory workers.
He finally spearheaded a movement to force Britain to abandon its colony with the Quit India Civil Disobedience Movement in 1942. Gandhi refused to help Britain fight against the Nazis unless they gave India their sovereignty. Gandhi was unjustly thrown in jail on several occasions in both South Africa and in India, and was eventually released for health reasons. His struggle led to the independence of the Indian nation. Gandhi forged the way for others throughout the world to resist oppression through non-violent resistance.
This principle is fittingly encapsulated one of his well known quotations: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Gandhi was a strong believer in the power of being true to oneself and others. A passage from his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, clearly demonstrates this ideal: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall — think of it, always. Jimmy Santiago Baca was able to endure the years of isolation and torture because of the healing power that writing brought to him. He was also a believer in truth and justice and was able to achieve them through his poetry.
“Words gave off rings of white energy, radar signals from powers beyond me that infused me with truth. I believed what I wrote, because what I wrote was true. My words did not come from books or textual formulas, but from a deep faith in the voice of my heart. (Baca) Although Coming Into Language is an extremely disturbing account of a man who is wrongly incarcerated because he is unable to fight for his constitutional rights, it is also comforting. It demonstrates that a man can not only endure, but becomes a better person, while in prison. “We are taken on a journey deep into the writer’s scarred soul to witness how he survived the horrors of prison, solitary confinement, and the mental ward. We share the depths of torment and the hellish despair he suffers as well as the birth of faith and hope as he finds his footing as a poet.
And in the end, we experience this joy as his love on language overcomes the miseries of a childhood marked by crime, cruelty and violence. ” (McCuen-Metherell, Winkler) Another great world leader who was unfairly incarcerated was also very much influenced by the life and writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King fought for his people in the United States shortly after Gandhi won independence for his own nation. Segregation, racism and Jim Crow laws created a life of injustice for people of color throughout the United States after the Civil War, but especially in the South.
Martin Luther King struggled to create a better life for African Americans and drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. He read several works by this great leader, including his autobiography, and believed in the non-violent ideals that it promoted. “The impact they made on him is best described in his own words: ‘As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. ‘ ” (King Nonviolence)
After Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for trying to sit at the front of a bus, Martin Luther King launched into a boycott against the Montgomery public transportation system. Although it lasted for 385 days and King was arrested during this time, it eventually paid off. The judge ruled in favor of King and declared that there could be no segregation on the public transportation system. However, the fight was far from over. Martin Luther King organized peaceful demonstrations throughout the South and was frequently thrown in jail. During his time in jail he fervently wrote about his cause.
He eventually led the March on Washington in 1963, where he delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. In it, he echoed the teachings of Gandhi, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. ” Martin Luther King was the youngest person to be given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Nelson Mandela was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions in South Africa for his own people. He fought the apartheid policy of racial segregation and was thrown in prison for life in 1962. During the twenty-seven years that Mandela spent in prison, he used the power of the pen to quietly control the resistance movement that eventually led to the abolition of apartheid in 1994. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was published the same year. The first multi-racial elections were also held that year, and Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. He served until 1999.
In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address that he gave in 1993, Mandela echoed the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King: “I am also here today as a representative of the millions of people across the globe, the anti-apartheid movement, the governments and organisations that joined with us, not to fight against South Africa as a country or any of its peoples, but to oppose an inhuman system and sue for a speedy end to the apartheid crime against humanity. These countless human beings, both inside and outside our country, had the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice, without seeking selfish gain.
They recognised that an injury to one is an injury to all and therefore acted together in defence of justice and a common human decency. ” (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech-) Jimmy Santiago Baca was also able to use writing as a non-violent weapon against the tyranny he experienced in prison. Writing was his savior and his strength. “Writing bridged my divided life of prisoner and free man. I wrote of the emotional butchery of prisons, and of my acute gratitude for poetry. Where my blind doubt and spontaneous trust in life met, I discovered empathy and compassion. (Baca) Although he was sentenced to twenty-five years and was unable to fight for his people outside the confines of the prison walls, Baca spent his life writing about the lives of disenfranchised. Instead of dwelling on the pain of his own tragic life, Coming Into Language tells of his rebirth through literature and poetry. Jimmy Baca earned his GED the year he left prison, in 1979. He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, the International Hispanic Heritage Award and the esteemed International Award. In 2006 he won the Cornelius P. Turner Award.
Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are all famous statesmen who brought sovereignty to their people. Unlike Jimmy Santiago Baca, these men went into jail fighting for freedom. Even though the government and justice system tried to break them, these men proved that it is possible not only to survive, but to become a better person, if the dream is powerful enough. Like the chronicles of these influential men, Jimmy Santiago Baca’s life is a testament to the power of an individual make a difference in society through non violent resistance and purposeful, compassionate writing.