Treating some categories of people in a prejudicial manner is in many societies a serious problem that currently has no remedy. African American men, frequently viewed as a threat to others, comprise one group that is the target of negative bias in the United States. In his short essay, Brent Staples discloses the experience of one young black man regarding societal attitudes toward him in that the narrator recounts numerous examples of being mistaken for a dangerous criminal even though he has never committed a crime. However, Staples’ “Just Walk on By: Black Men in Public Space” also illustrates how it is possible to remain human despite being perceived as a beast in a world full of prejudice and false accusations.
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The tragedy of being excluded from many and perhaps even most social advantages is not a new notion for African Americans. However, the experiences that Staples describes are too upsetting to gloss over. The narration starts with the speaker stating, “My first victim was a woman,” giving the impression that the story is being told by a criminal (Staples 339). However, the young man goes on to make it obvious that his actions have never resembled criminal behavior. His only “crime” involves being born black, considerably limiting his future possibilities. Whenever he approaches a white woman, the latter is likely to consider his proximity “menacingly close” (Staples 339). Sadly, the narrator realizes that he has an inherited ability “to alter public space in ugly ways” (Staples 339). The problem is that most in society do not share his understanding of the irony of this expression. However, even after a plethora of negative encounters, the man does not lose his humanity. While others may fear him without reason or logic, he neither changes his own beliefs nor begins to act according to the false accusations aimed at him.
Behind his mask of calmness is an extensive amount of pain that faces the narrator every day. He admits that his “shyness of combat” is not a choice but a must—a prerequisite of sustaining his life (Staples 341). During his childhood and adolescence, the narrator saw the imprisonment and death of his peers, and he now realizes that responding directly to society’s faulty accusations is not the best way out of such a situation. Moreover, he acknowledges that the treatment he receives from white women is not a mere “hallucination” (Staples 340). Hence, he may be characterized not only as sober-minded but also sympathetic, a surprising outcome considering the generally negative and wrongful rejection he repeatedly receives. The narrator notes that the decision to remain “a shadow-timid, but a survivor” may have appeared unconsciously but has become his life’s guiding line (Staples 341). Although others may view him as a dangerous creature, he has a soul that prevents him from stooping to act dangerously. The young man’s conscious decision to adjust to the situation must have been painful, but it is also wise and humane.
Perhaps most surprising is the fact that the narrator not only accommodates the circumstances in which he finds himself, but he also tries to shape the experience of a white person who meets with him. As a part of this effort, he has learned “to smother the rage” he has felt due to being mistaken for a frightening creature (Staples 342). As the result of repeated instances of wrongful treatment from others, the young man has taught himself to appear “less threatening” (Staples 342). While gaining the ability to voice such irony has evidently cost much mental pain to the narrator, he has grown to rise above bias, to be stronger than unjustified accusations and larger than the pain that society has inflicted. The narrator has even formed the habit of whistling melodies from Vivaldi and Beethoven, a practice that relaxes “even steely New Yorkers” (Staples 342). All these aspects testify to the young man’s willingness to diffuse the false accusation of being dangerous. The saddest irony of all, however, is that he has never committed any act that would necessitate such extra emphasis on his being normal.
Staples’ short account focuses on depicting the prejudicial treatment of African American males, but the underlying message is the narrator’s struggle to remain humane despite being viewed as extremely dangerous. Although this problem has been widely discussed, the points Staples makes draw the particular attention of the audience. The narrator dwells on his experiences of being mistaken for a criminal with seeming calmness, but his agony is readable between the lines. Hence, it is remarkable to learn that he has not only stopped being angry at society’s attitudes but has also taught himself how to mitigate negative situations. Staples’ essay provides important lessons to the reader regarding interracial relationships and personal perceptions of an individual’s identity. While there is currently no remedy for racial prejudice, the author facilitates viewing the situation from the point of a silent victim, which may inspire some white people to reconsider their treatment of African Americans.
Staples, Brent. “Just Walk on By: Black Men in Public Space.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, edited by Samuel Cohen, 5th ed., Bedford, 2017, pp. 339-342.