Just Walk on By
Review And Analysis Of “Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponders His Ability To Alter Public Space” Essay By Brent Staples
While we work to change the tolerance in America, the prejudice response of perceiving black men as criminals, is still a regular occurrence. In his essay, “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Ability to Alter Public Space” Brent Staples analyzes the effects he has on those around him and expresses his feelings about being able to “alter public places in ugly ways”. Staples purpose is to magnify the ongoing prejudices happening to black men as they are often stereotyped as a threat. He hopes to change the view of others by describing how black men are made to feel because of these unjust views. He supports his position by using strong imagery as he chronicles his own encounters with prejudices. The author maintains a surprisingly understanding tone, he is also pleasant and easy-going which broadens his audience to any reader. Black men can relate to his experiences, women are given understanding, also he is addressing those who act on stereotypes. Staples uses credible evidence through his own experiences of racial profiling which makes him a trustworthy source, he is able to gain the reader’s empathy by expressing the pain felt as a result of his victimization. Staples often wrote about growing up facing poverty. He wrote this essay in 1974, only eight years after the death of Martin Luther King, when civil rights for African-Americans were improving. However, the discrimination continued even when segregation stopped. Staples was a 23 year old graduate student when he first experienced racial profiling, suggesting that he was not predisposition to expect this type of bigotry. He concedes that women are more vulnerable and that they are victims on the streets who do need to be cautious. He also acknowledges the role that young black men produce by being a populous number of the perpetrators. As a result of his genuine sincerity in trying to change the outlook of others, Staples is able to persuade others to think before they react and proves to be a respectable, reliable source of information.
Staples offers several examples of being treated like a criminal, he begins by recalling an interaction with a young woman where he is made to feel like a predator for the first time. The first three words written in his essay are, “My first victim, ” (pg. 260) introducing the idea that it makes him feel like a bad guy experiencing this encounter. He makes the reader feel his agony for being the cause of her fear stating: “It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into, ” recognizing the discrimination facing him as a black man. When strolling at night, he crossed streets of Chicago where “blacks, whites, male and female” would all lock their doors as he passed their cars demonstrating that the same behaviors are exhibited by all types of people. While at work as a journalist, he was mistaken for a burglar in his own workplace and needed to rush to his employer in order to establish his identity. He was threatened by a jewelry store owner and her Doberman while browsing her store. Staples looks back on his childhood, explaining his vantage point of growing up with a “shyness of combat” watching his friends give way to the seduction of power. He was not drawn to violence, instead finds himself feeling lonely and isolated when he is feared on the streets.
Staples builds such a rapport with his audience, it is hard not to trust him. He is able to transform the view of others by pulling them through his eyes as he walks each night on the cold pavement. He illustrates the sadness and loneliness he feels as he demonstrates his desire to be equal. While he understands why women have reason to fear for their safety, this fact brings him no comfort. He feels “the alienation” from always being a suspect to others. He actually argues that feeling feared, in turn makes him fear his own safety, stating that when people are afraid, there is “always the possibility of death. ” for him. He demonstrates his willingness to change to the way he acts in public in order to make those around him feel safe by whistling current tunes. Thus proving the idea that he alone is able to alter the ideas of those around him based on his own inactions and actions which brings his audience to a sympathetic reaction about his situation.
His openness about a wide range of emotions, the sympathy and understanding he gives to women, as well as his willingness to make changes he shouldn’t have to make in order to comfort others shows his real character. The fact that he withholds anger when it should be overflowing, affirms the ethos appeal of the author’s attitude and personal characteristics. Black men are singled out and profiled by the police, they themselves are in danger by being perceived as dangerous by the public. His purpose is to challenge the audience’s views and actions toward black men by demonstrating how black men are made to feel when facing these prejudice views. He does this very professionally, with a fair, and hopeful expectation. Staples offers many examples from his own life as well as one from another journalist who was mistaken for a murder suspect while working, he adds that black men regularly exchange their similar stories. He expands his argument by using direct sources where black men have had a “firm place” being represented as muggers in New York literature using Norman Podhoretz’ article, “My Negro Problem” and “Heaven and Nature” by Edward Hoagland as specific examples. The structure of the essay allows us to begin when he first felt himself viewed as a threat in Chicago and continues through to moving to his current location in New York where there is a slight relief felt in Manhattan’s crowded streets. Staples appeals to our emotion by looking back on his childhood recognizing that he “remained a shadow” growing up “one of the good boys, ” staying “timid” to survive. Assuming that he must make himself act and appear less threatening in order to protect himself. He begins to whistle as he takes his nightly strolls while giving “a wide berth to nervous people”. He amplifies his feelings of being “surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed” to his audience which gains their sympathy. Even though the first reference point in this essay was 1974, with the examples used, this essay could have been written in 2018 and would still ring true. Even readers without these prejudice views are able to sympathize and gain a new perspective to the struggles black men continue to face.
By analyzing the rhetorical triangle, it is clear how Staples illustrates his personal experiences which leads the reader to trust his conclusion that his presence in public does have an effect on others, he is able to gain the reader’s empathy by vividly expressing the variation of emotions he felt throughout these experiences.
Analysis of “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space” by Brent Staples
A single story does not define who someone is, and it most definitely does not define a whole ethnic group. Not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Germans are Nazis, and not all African Americans are criminals. However, there are many blacks in the world today who have to accommodate for white people in order to not be stereotyped as “criminal-like.” They have to be careful with how they dress, how they walk, and how they talk because of their fear of being pushed into a stereotypical box. “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space” by Brent Staples is a story of a young black graduate student who describes the discrimination he endures every day because of his skin color and explains how he accommodates for the white people who are afraid of him. Staples shows us that discrimination does not have to be verbal, it also shows through people’s actions and thoughts; it is important we break down these walls of racist stereotypes and build bridges of understanding between one another.
Staples starts off the essay with an anecdote; he is walking down a street in a Chicago neighborhood far behind a young white woman, and after frantically looking back several times, she starts running as if he has a knife or gun in his hands. After the woman starts running, he says, “Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny,” and he begins to feel “surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed, all at once”. This scarring incident makes him realize his “ability to alter public space in ugly ways,” and that he is indistinguishable from all the other criminals who are black. After this realization, he begins to become familiar with how scared people act around him; they lock their car doors when he walks by, cross to the other side of the street instead of passing him, clench their bags when they see him, avoid eye contact, etc. In his hometown Chester, Pennsylvania, he was known as a well-behaved boy and now, in Chicago, he is seen as the complete opposite which was an uncomfortable transition for him. He then talks about two instances in his work and in a jewelry store when the workers treated him as if he was a criminal; both of these incidents led him to start making himself less threatening. He accommodates for them by moving with care, letting people clear the lobby before he enters, and whistling melodies from popular classical composers in order to appear less scary.
This essay is a perfect example of the demeaning stereotypes that hang above black people in our society today. Staples is thrown into society’s tiny stereotype box and is looked at as a criminal solely because of the color of his skin; if we treat blacks as if they are criminals when they are not, they may start to believe it and act just as that (self-fulfilling prophecy). It mentally screws a person up when they are treated as something less than they are; it makes them feel alienated as if they are not even a real person anymore. Let’s face the facts: a white man is just as likely to be a criminal; however, people who are black are twice as likely to be killed by a police officer while being unarmed compared to a white individual. It is because of the color of their skin that their very own human rights are ripped from their hands. A single story cannot possibly embody the lives of every black person; every single one of them has a unique story, and it is our duty to acknowledge that.
After being thrown into the box with the other black criminals, Staples starts to change things in his life just to accommodate for these white people. However, even though he does those things, he still has to encounter discrimination every day when he is just walking on the street. He states, “I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the other side of the street rather than pass me”. He begins to feel alienated so in turn, he begins to whitify himself. He states, “I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright sunny selections from Vivaldi; four seasons,” (Staples). How dare they? How dare they put him in this box? How dare they make him feel this way? How dare they change him? What gives them the right? No one should ever have to grow accustomed to people being scared of them just because of the color of their skin. He is a human being with a story, a heritage, and feelings; no one gets to take his human rights away from him. It is not fair that he has to change who he is just to accommodate for people who are too shallow to get to know him.
How did we let it get this far? In 1955, what did Rosa parks sit in a white man’s seat for? In 1963, what did Martin Luther King stand in front of 250,000 people to preach for? In 1964, what did Nelson Mandela stay in jail for 20 years for? They surely did not do all of those things just for us to reverse back in time. If any of these activists were alive right now, they would be extremely disappointed. Although we emphasize the importance of freedom and rights in America, there are so many black people who are not free; they have their rights and freedoms yanked from their very hands every single day.
Staples uses this essay to help us understand what it is like to be a black individual in a society that is driven by stereotypes. Instead of judging people based on these stereotypes, let’s learn more about them, about who they are, where they came from, and where they are going; everyone deserves that chance. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Let that day be today, not tomorrow, not a few weeks from now, TODAY. Let us break down the wall of stereotypes and instead, build bridges between each other.