Altering Public Space in Ugly Ways In his essay Black Men and Public Space, Brent Staples attempts to introduce people to something most all are guilty of, but pay little attention to. Using accounts from his own and others experiences, Staples essay portrays the racist tendency of people to assume black men are potentially violent and dangerous. Staples discovery of this comes during a late-night encounter. A young white female, whom Staples labels my first victim (197), was walking down the street in front of Staples and was not comfortable with the space he provided for her. After a couple of glances back and changes in her pace, she soon began running and disappeared down a side street. Of course, Staples had no intention of robbing or in any way harming this woman.
He was just taking a walk, just as she was. Nevertheless, this was a fairly well to do neighborhood. Apparently, this woman figured that if a black man did find himself in this part of town, he was most likely up to something. Not wanting any trouble, she decided to get out of harms way.
In another illustration, Staples describes an instance in which he was delivering a story to the editor of a magazine for which he was writing, and was mistaken for a burglar. While racing to his editors desk in order to meet his deadline, the office manager and an ad hoc posse (199) of security personnel began to chase him through the building. I had no way of proving who I was, Staples writes. I could only move briskly toward the company of someone who knew me. (106) While writing for a Chicago paper, Staples walked into a jewelry store in another well-off part of town, and encountered another situation where his skin color came into play. The woman behind the counter disappeared and returned with an angry Doberman.
Understanding that the woman did not quite value him as a possible sale, Staples took a cursory look around, nodded, and bade he good night. (199) We get the idea that things like this happen only in Chicago, Staples also writes about some of his similar encounters in New York. In Brooklyn, he says women often become fearful when encountering him on the streets. As he describes it, with their purse straps strung across their chests bandolier-style, they forge ahead as though bracing themselves against being tackled.
(200) Staples also points out in the essay that he is not alone in his encounters of this racism. In another incident, a black associate of his was stopped and almost taken to jail by the police on suspicion that he himself was the murderer. Such episodes are not uncommon, says Staples. Black men trade tales like this all the time. (198) What is so nice about this essay is the fact that Staples does not want to point to whites as the only people to hold this fear of black men. I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver black, white, male, or female hammering down the door locks, (199) he recalls of his experiences.
When black people display this sort of fear of another black person, then it is not a racist reaction. That is not true, though. The fact that even those of the same ethnic background fear the worst from this man because of his being black only makes the argument stronger that racism drives this fear. These incidents force Staples to make an admission though. He admits that he understands the fear others have of him. He acknowledges that, because women are often vulnerable to attack on city streets, they are justified in being overly cautious when encountering a potential attacker.
He also agrees that black men are often the perpetrators of such attacks. As he states, though, these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes with being ever the suspect. Staples argument that his color is the only thing that would lead others to fear him is not without its flaws though. He describes his appearance during that first incident in a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky military jacket.
(197) He also informs the reader that he likes taking walks at night, and that his encounters frequently happen during those walks. He should be free to take a walk whenever he feels like it, should he not However, people will always be cautious of anyone who walks the streets in the middle of the night, particularly if they are within a reasonable closeness to harm you. He also seems to make the mistake of thinking that his personal background or profession would prevent others from viewing him as a threat. His description of how he managed to avoid the violence that so many others in his hometown had fallen victim was certainly moving.
In addition, the fact that he was able to get an education and a good job despite the obstacles provided by his background are commendable. These things all help to draw compassion from the reader, but they are irrelevant to how pedestrians and jewelry store owners would view him. Most people would rather not take the time to know the background of potential attackers, when avoiding trouble altogether would be the best course of action. Despite its few weak points, Staples essay serves an important purpose. Black Men and Public Space exposes the racism to those who are not conscious of it, even though they may be guilty of it.