Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space
Brent Staples (b. 1951) earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago and went on to become a journalist. The
following essay originally appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1986, under the title “Just Walk On By.” Staples revised it slightly for
publication in Harper’s a year later under the present title. The particular occasion for Staples’s reflections is an incident that
occurred for the first time in the mid-1970s, when he discovered that his mere presence on the street late at night was enough to
frighten a young white woman. Recalling this incident leads him to reflect on issues of race, gender, and class in the United States.
As you read, think about why Staples chose the new title, “Black Men and Public Space.”
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, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean,
impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet,
uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man
– a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky
military jacket – seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was
soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street.
That was more than a decade ago, I was twenty-two years old, a graduate student newly arrived at the
University of Chicago. 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. It was clear that she thought
herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insomnia, however, I was stalking sleep,
not defenseless wayfarers. As a softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to a raw chicken – let alone hold one
to a person’s throat – I was surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed all at once. Her flight made me feel like an
accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally
seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that followed, signified that
a vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians – particularly women – and me. And I soon gathered
that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a
corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an
errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet – and they often do in
urban America – there is always the possibility of death.
In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the
language of fear. At dark, shadowy intersections, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and
elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver – black, white, male, or female – hammering down the door locks.
On less traveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the
other side of the street rather than pass me. Then there were the standard unpleasantries with policemen,
doormen, bouncers, cabdrivers, and others whose business it is to screen out troublesome individuals before
there is any nastiness.
I moved to New York nearly two years ago and I have remained an avid night walker. In central
Manhattan, the near-constant crowd cover minimizes tense one-on-one street encounters. Elsewhere – in
SoHo, for example, where sidewalks are narrow and tightly spaced buildings shut out the sky – things can get
very taut indeed.
After dark, on the warrenlike streets of Brooklyn where I live, I often see women who fear the worst
from me. They seem to have set their faces on neutral, and with their purse straps strung across their chests
bandolier-style, they forge ahead as though bracing themselves against being tackled. 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. Yet
these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, a fearsome
entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact.
It is not altogether clear to me how I reached the ripe old age of twenty-two without being
conscious of the lethality nighttime pedestrians attributed to me. Perhaps it was because in Chester,
Pennsylvania, the small, angry industrial town where I came of age in the 1960s, I was scarcely noticeable
against a backdrop of gang warfare, street knifings, and murders. I grew up one of the good boys, had
perhaps a half-dozen fistfights. In retrospect, my shyness of combat has clear sources.
As a boy, I saw countless 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. I came to doubt the virtues of intimidation early on. I chose,
perhaps unconsciously, to remain a shadow-timid, but a survivor.
The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor. The most
frightening of these confusions occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked as a journalist in
Chicago. One day, rushing into the office of a magazine I was writing for with a deadline story in hand, I was
mistaken for a burglar. The office manager called security and, with an ad hoc posse, pursued me through the
labyrinthine halls, nearly to my editor’s door. I had no way of proving who I was. I could only move briskly
toward the company of someone who knew me.
Another time I was on assignment for a local paper and killing time before an interview. I entered a
jewelry store on the city’s affluent Near North Side. The proprietor excused herself and returned with an
enormous red Doberman pinscher straining at the end of a leash. She stood, the dog extended toward me,
silent to my questions, her eyes bulging nearly out of her head. I took a cursory look around, nodded, and
bade her good night.
Relatively speaking, however, I never fared as badly as another black male journalist. He went to
nearby Waukegan, Illinois, a couple of summers ago to work on a story about a murderer who was born
there. Mistaking the reporter for the killer, police officers hauled him from his car at gunpoint and but for his
press credentials would probably have tried to book him. Such episodes are not uncommon. Black men trade
tales like this all the time.
Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal. Not to do
so would surely have led to madness. 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. If I happen to be entering a
building behind some people who appear skittish, I may walk by, letting them clear the lobby before I return,
so as not to seem to be following them. I have been calm and extremely congenial on those rare occasions
when I’ve been pulled over by the police.
And on late-evening constitutionals 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. 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. It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in
For Discuss ion and Wri t ing
1. How does Staples describe himself? How is he sometimes seen by others?
2. Staples begins his essay by discussing the effect of his presence on another person. However,
others’ reactions to his presence affect him in return, and he spends much of the essay explaining
the emotional and practical effects he experiences as a consequence of his interactions. How is
the complication and paradox of these situations expressed by the last sentence about Staples’
whistling classical music being the “equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know
they are in bear country” (paragraph 12)?
3. The person with whom you find yourself identifying in a story sometimes depends on your own
identity. With whom did you identify at the start of Staples’ essay, and how did it affect your
reading of the full piece?