Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space by Brent Staples

Intention: The intention of this essay is to illustrate the plight of black men being automatically labeled as criminals and treated as such.

Style: In the very first paragraph, Staples refers to a random woman on the street as his, “first victim.” Immediately, the audience knows this is not going to be a happy piece and assumes Staples is a bad person. By making this assumption, they become just like the woman on the street who assumes something about a person based off of his skin color. Staples continues to use this idea of victim and predator throughout the rest of the essay. He compares cutting a raw chicken to holding a knife to a person’s throat –victim: chicken and person; predator: himself. Then, he describes the, “vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians –particularly women– and me.” This image separates the victim (women) from the predator (black men) so that the audience can begin to clearly see the stereotypes Staples is addressing.

Ethos: The beginning of this essay begins with an anecdote and Staples gives many of his personal experiences, as a black man, as examples. Because of the use of personal information, Staples has a lot of credibility and the audience is inclined to trust what he is saying. Not only does he share his own stories, but also that of his colleague –another black male journalist. The use of another example from a different person supports the idea of stereotyping and how it isn’t just one isolated case.

Quote: One quote that stuck out to me was, “It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.” Staples is referring to the music he plays while walking, to let people know he is not dangerous. Previously, Staples had referred to himself as the predator and the woman as the victim. However, in this quote he is switching the roles. Staples is now referring to the women and other assuming bystanders as the bears (predator) and himself as an innocent hiker (victim). To compare a human to a vicious bear seems cruel and it causes the reader to wonder if how they are stereotyping black men is any better than how Staples is referring to them.

-Grace Dearing

Pathos: Staples uses very harsh and upsetting examples of young black men that were “tough guys locked away; I have since buried several, too. They were babies, really- a teenage cousin, a brother of twenty-two, a childhood friend in his mid-twenties- all gone down in episodes of bravado played out in the streets.” By discussing such a personal topic, Staples appeals to the readers emotions and helps the reader understand why his position is valid and important. As an audience, we feel badly for Staples and for his friends/family members and we want to get to the end of the essay so that we can find resolutions to his or her problems.

Arrangement: Staples begins the essay with an anecdote to draw the reader in and then discusses his own personal experiences with racial stereotyping. He then calls for sympathy when he discusses his own family members/ friends/ colleagues that are also affected by the issue. By this point, the audience wants to help. However, since it is such a complex issue, Staples ends the essay with ways in which he has changed his own lifestyle to adjust to the corrupt views of society because there is no easy fix. This becomes the call to action at the end without Staples having to directly state it. He shouldn’t have to change his lifestyle because the audience should change their attitude.

Quote: “In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear.” I like this quote because within his own familiar niche in the world, he was safe because people knew who he was. But, leaving his home, he had to learn the ways of the world. He had to prove himself to others which is impossible if his skin color prohibits him before he even gets a chance.

–Mackenzie Coon

Memory: The author uses memory in the first few sentences to invoke guilt in the reader. He begins as if he’s going to harm the woman walking down the street. The reader, especially women can recall a time when we felt threatened by a black man near us in a public space. We, too, can recall a time we crossed the street to get away from him, or clutched our handbags a little closer, or pulled out our phones to dial 911 if needed. We automatically assume that the author is a criminal because our own experiences labeling innocent black men as criminals. The author skillfully highlights the subconscious racism in all of us right at the beginning. This sets the stage for the rest of the essay.

Diction: The author uses a lot of poetic language to make the essay interesting, and also perhaps to frame himself as the gentle, intelligent person he is and not the thug society has labeled him as. On a night walk, he describes himself as “suffering a bout of insomnia, I was stalking sleep.” His alliteration emphasizes the hazy sleeplessness of his late night walk. He also describes himself as able to “alter public space in ugly ways,” implying that his very being could warp the average city street into a blatant display of subconscious racism merely by his being there.

Quote: The author says he grew “…accustomed to, but never comfortable with, people crossing the street.” I can’t even imagine what it’s like to feel that unwelcome, even when merely walking down the street. The psychological impact of literally repelling people to cross the street has to be extremely detrimental to all black men. In addition, the fact that it occurred so often just highlights the fact that destroying racism isn’t merely taking down signs that say “whites only”, but changing the mindset of the people who feel the need to cross the street.

–Tay Sauer

Staples personifies fear to really emphasize just how set apart from the rest of the world he was. He writes, “In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear.” Brent Staples makes fear seem tangible and something to be seen, or at least seen whenever he was around. After this, Staples recounts examples of when people visibly and audibly took precautions when he was around. People would lock their doors and he had trouble with doormen and police officers, or people who were supposed to stop trouble before it happened.

This essay evokes a lot of pathos in the reader because it is a narrative. If Brent Staples wrote from a different point of view or simply wrote a different essay, the intention would not be as powerful. Because Staples tells his own story, readers sympathize with him. Specifically when Staples gives actual examples of prejudice against him, readers feel the most emotion and can try to understand what Staples has gone through. Staples calls upon a lot of memory which also makes him more effective in evoking emotion. A lot of readers have either been one to lock their doors when someone shady has walked by, or have been the one to walk by when someone locks their doors.

By acknowledging the other side of the argument, Staples validates his own point that being alienated by complete strangers is a terrible experience. Staples says, “I understand, of course, that the danger they perceive is not a hallucination. Women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black males are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence.” Brent Staples realizes that people have been attacked before, and that women are most likely to fall victim. However, he states that being set apart from the crowd as a possible threat is heartbreaking. He argues that even though the black male population, which he is part of, represents most of the attackers of these young women, there is no comfort brought to him. Even though their fears are valid, Staples is brought no consolation when he is isolated from the rest of the street.

–Samantha Smith


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