Brent Staples’ Black Men in Public Places

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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Black Men in Public Spaces is a piece of autobiographical writing that deals with issues of racism and discrimination in the United States. In his short essay, Brent Staple relates a few of his nighttime experiences in the street, which revealed the way in which he was perceived by the others. As a member of the black community, Staples discovers that he is shunned by the strangers that he meets in the street and that women especially think of him as of a perilous individual.

Not being a violent man, Staples is confused and offended by the awe he inspires to the strangers that pass him by and soon learns to shun them himself in order to avoid the unpleasantness of an encounter. Thus, Black Men in Public Places is best suited for biographical criticism. The essay recounts a few of the experiences of the author during his encounters with strangers in the street. These experiences are related in such a way as to highlight the social issues at hand: racism in the form of prejudice and preconception.

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The author has several encounters with white people during his night wanderings that reveal a disconcerting attitude on their part. The young black man is shunned by the white collectivity as a dangerous man. The setting of these occurrences is very important: the night and the public places reveal the space that the black community is allowed for in the current society. Despite the fact that they are free, black men are regarded with prejudice and lack of confidence by absolute strangers, without any explicit motive.

Thus, the author feels that his simple presence in the street, without any triggering gesture or attitude on his part, is likely to cause disturbance. He also realizes that the fact that he is considered dangerous by the others without other evidence than the fact that he is black can make his walks dangerous. To highlight his ideas, Brent Staples uses a few particular devices. Thus, first of all, the piece is more of an essay than an actual story. Nevertheless, the author shapes it by giving it a particular ending.

While he relates a few of his experiences as well as that of one of his black friends who is also a journalist as himself in the beginning, he ends by remarking that he himself soon adopted the same attitude as the white individuals had towards him. Thus, in order to avoid the unpleasantness of feeling the fear he inspires to the strangers he meets in the street, he begins to avoid anyone he sees himself and to keep his distance as much as possible.

He also relates that he decides to quicken his pace and overtake other people in the street so that they should not feel as if they were followed by him. These techniques that the author uses for avoidance are revelatory for the racial problem described here. Thus, the black men do not seem to be entitled to the “public space”, where they are looked upon with fear or distrust. Their mere presence is therefore avoided by strangers because of racial prejudice. The author creates an interesting effect at the beginning of the story as he uses semiotics and tropes in order to make his point.

Thus, swinging for a moment into the white perspective, he begins his story by declaring the first woman that ran away from him in the street “his first victim”: “My first victim was a woman-white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park […]”(Barnet, Burto and Cain, 301). The word “victim” is a sign, emphasizing the way in which the white person perceived himself or herself in the presence of the black man.

Furthermore, Staples makes use of an interesting metaphor to describe the confusing and painful effect that this first experience had on his own perception. Using an auditory image, he highlights the fact that the reality of prejudice was discovered to him in the sound of the hurrying footsteps of the white woman who was trying to escape him without any apparent reason: “It was in the echo of that terrified woman's footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I'd come into--the ability to alter public space in ugly ways.

”(Barnet, Burto and Cain, 301) It is through this echo of avoidance that he hears in the woman’s footsteps that Staples realizes that he is not regarded as a simple individual but as a part of the black community, and, as such, he finds himself the unwilling inheritor of detrimental behavior. In order to transmit his message on racial prejudice, Staples also uses a metaphor describing the actual distance that lies between black and white people: “That first encounter, and those that followed, signified that a vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians--particularly women--and me.

” (Barnet, Burto and Cain, 301) Using the word “gulf” to portray this distance and the relationship between the black and the white, Staples evokes the painful consequences of prejudice, which creates this insurmountable distance between people. These observations, determine the author to take precautions himself and avoid encounters in the street as much as possible: “I now take precautions to make myself less threatening. I move about with care, particularly late in the evening. I give a wide berth to nervous people on subway platforms during the wee hours, particularly when I have exchanged business clothes for jeans.

” (Barnet, Burto and Cain, 302) The ending of the story is also very effective, as the author declares himself the inventor of a new strategic point designed to relax the relationships between the two racial opposites. Thus, upon his encounter with white people, the author begins warbling cheerful songs meant to ease the atmosphere and increase the confidence of the others: “Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax, and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

” (Barnet, Burto and Cain, 302) Black Men in Public Places is therefore effective precisely because the writers chooses an autobiographical style to relate his experiences, thus providing with an introspective view of his experiences. The ending is particularly effective precisely because it depicts the unnecessary efforts the author takes in order to make his presence in the street less conspicuously menacing for the white people. Works Cited: Barnet, Sylvan, William Burto, and William E. Cain. Literature for Composition. New York: Pearson Longman Publishers, 2007

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Brent Staples’ Black Men in Public Places. (2016, Aug 04). Retrieved from

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