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Amanda Drobney


Assignment #2

15 June 2009

An Analysis of a Black Narrative

a commentary on Brent Staples' essay Black Men in Public Space

“…we see the black memoirist’s tale as a part of a larger, subsuming saga – an entry in the vast
multivolume project of Narrating the Negro.”
– Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

To be able to better understand the cultural setting in which the events depicted in this essay took

place, one must possess at least basic knowledge about what kind of social environment the

streets of urban America represented in the mid 70’s. Despite the fact that by the time a fairly

stable legal equality had been established, abolishment of private acts of racial discrimination

was still rather an endeavor, than an accomplishment. In his essay, “Black Men in Public Space”,

Brent Staples provides a valuable account which shatters long-standing stereotypes about what it

means being an African-American in the years following the Second Reconstruction era (1950s

and 1960s), about the “black experience” commonly associated with poverty, violence and

crime. Taking into consideration the Staples’ reputation as holder of one of journalism’s most

prestigious jobs, editor at the New York Times, the essay has a rather dramatic overture. He gives

a detailed description of a night sidewalk encounter with a white woman, which he refers to as

“my first victim”. This woman immediately identifies him as a menace, and makes a run to

safety. It is only in the following paragraph that he explains becoming aware of the awkward

legacy that has been bestowed upon him. The fact that he is assumed to be dangerous merely

because of his skin color clearly offends him. Ironically, being considered a threat brings about a

potential risk to his own safety. Having grown up in the core of rural gang conflicts in Chester,

this is something he is entirely aware of. Throughout his adolescence, he had practiced the

survival technique of being a shadowy figure in violent and socially deteriorating surroundings.

Similarly, he would now reconsider his actions, to handle with appropriate delicacy the situations

he is involuntarily getting himself into. Since the preconceptions and stereotypes have a deeper

root in society, the street remains not for long the only place where he is troubled because of the

color of his skin. Security mistakes him for a burglar, a retailer almost lets the dog on him when

he approaches, and drivers lock the doors on crossroads. In time, he grows to accept the

alienation imposed by the way he is treated, but still acknowledges the discomfort coming from


Decades of selective perception had altered the collective consciousness, and he, as a trained

psychologist, is competent to recognize the source of that particular behavior. Unable to

influence the situation otherwise, he turns the sidewalk experience into a game he himself calls

“Scatter the pigeons” and takes advantage of the pre-established stereotypes by humming

classical melodies in order to appear less threatening. Overall, the author offers his version of the

“black experience” in which he highlights the social inequality and the seemingly benign form of

discrimination taking place precisely in the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement aftermath.

Portraying a fragment of his uneasy journey from his dysfunctional rural home, through the

ghetto and all the way to the elite of the white world, he presents his tiny, yet noteworthy bit of

the bigger picture - the Negro Narrative. However, the author objects to being regarded as a

“black memoirist” for he believes that being black only enriches his experience but is far from

defining him as an individual.