Brent Staples, "Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to
Alter Public Space"
Brent Staples (1951- ) was born in Chester, Pennsylvania and earned a
B.A. from Widener University in 1973 and a Ph.D. from the University of
Chicago in 1977. He has taught psychology at various colleges and has
been a reporter for TheChicago Sun-Times and TheNew York Times, where he currently writes editorials about culture
and politics. Staples also contributes to other periodicals, including
Literary Cavalcade, Columbia Journalism Review, and the
Los Angeles Times. Among his frequent topics are race relations,
the effects of the media, and the state of education. His memoir Parallel
Time: Growing Up in Black and White (1994)won the Anisfield-Wolff
Book Award in 1995. "Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponders His Power
to Alter Public Space" takes a look at the effect some of his nighttime
walks have had on people. This essay was first published as "Black
Men and Public Space" in 1986 in Ms. Magazine.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Who was the author's first "victim"?
- Why was Staples really out on the street late that night?
- What did Staples ultimately do about his "threatening"
- What are some examples of people "whose business is to screen
out troublesome individuals before there is any nastiness"?
- Name two cities mentioned in this piece.
- According to Staples, what goes into "the making of a young
- According to the author, what is dangerous about seeming dangerous?
STRATEGY AND STYLE
- In the first paragraph, the author describes himself as "
a broad six feet two inches," in other words as a fairly large
man. What effect does this decision have on the rest of the essay? What
would he lose if he chose not to describe himself?
- In terms of rhetorical mode, discuss this piece as either an exemplification
essay or as a cause and effect essay.
- Staples uses onomatopoeia (thunk, thunk, thunk) to describe
the sound of people shutting their car door locks. What other ways could
he have conveyed this information? What is effective about the way he
decided to present it?
- Staples calls Norman Podhoretz's essay "My Negro Problem—And
Ours" both famous and infamous. Just from the title, what's infamous
about it? How can you relate Staples's use and description of this title
to the author's views about race?
- In the last paragraph Staples compares his whistling to a cowbell.
Describe the mental images involved in this comparison. How can you
link it to the rest of the reading? Do you find this conclusion effective?
ENGAGING THE TEXT
- Recall a time someone made an assumption about you based upon the
color of your skin. How did it make you feel? What did you do about
it? How can you relate these feelings and actions to your reading?
- Recall a time when you were really scared. Describe the circumstances.
Did you think of that time when you read this essay? Explain. How can
you link it now?
SUGGESTIONS FOR SUSTAINED WRITING
a. Staples writes in paragraph six that the danger some women feel upon
encountering young black men at night "is not a hallucination."
If it's true that their feelings are somewhat justified by statistics,
what's the problem with their reaction? What can be done about it?
b. Write an essay describing how the author's descriptions of himself
change throughout the piece.
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
In the last paragraph, Staples makes an allusion to a famous poem when
he uses the words "less traveled by." If you're not familiar
with the source, do some research to find it. Once you know the poem,
do enough research about its author to compare and contrast his life with
Staples's life. What work does that allusion do in this essay?
Here's a response
to Staples's "Just Walk On By" posted to a Web bulletin board.
Read it and decide whether you would feel comfortable using information
here in a paper about Staples. What leads you to your decision?
Here is some biographical
information from PBS. This page includes notes about Staples's life,
a photo, and a link to a video about the author in both RealVideo and
is from his speaking agency, Royce Carlton. Here you'll find a photo
of Staples and a book cover, as well as a biographical essay and a quote.
How about taking a look at a caricature
of Staples drawn by David Levine for The New York Review of Books.
How does this drawing compare to the other pictures of the author you've
seen? What do you make of it?
Let's take a look at more writing by Staples. Here is a review
he did of the book All Souls: A Family Story From Southie. (Free
Here's a quotation
from Staples about modern historical documents from Simpson's Contemporary
"Con Men and Conquerors" is the title of a book
review Staples wrote in 1994 for V. S. Naipaul's A Way in the
World. How does Staples's title relate to Naipauls' book? (Free
Staples has often written about intercultural communication. A
pioneer in this field is Edward T. Hall. Here is a page
with some information about Hall, a bibliography, and some related links.
Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White is the title
of an autobiography by Staples. Read this essay
about the state of memoir from Christianity Today. How does the
author of the essay use Staples as an authority?
Here are some short reviews
of Parallel Time from Kirkus Reviews, the Philadelphia Inquirer,
the Chicago Tribune, and other sources. Now that you know a bit
more about the book would you like to read it? Why or why not?