In his essay Just Walk on by, Brent Staples brings out a strong message about the conflict with identity faced by the black man. Instead of being recognized under individual identities with unique personalities, black men are generalized under a stereotype of street crimes such as burglary, muggers, and even murder. Brent points out instances when he had been confused for a burglar or a mugger, simply because he was black. He points out other black men he had known who had faced the same treatment as his, being mistaken even by the authority. People expressed fear whenever there was a black man present, pointing out to the notion that the people had that every black man is dangerous and up to no good. Brent explains the history of black mugging, citing the contribution of Norman Podhoretz and Edward Hoagland in the black mugging literature. Staples winds up by outlining things he had to do to make him appear less threatening to the public. This essay will seek to assert that the stereotype of the black minority as criminals, is highly exaggerated making them suffer incessantly as most of the accusations and assumptions generated by the public are not always true and do not represent all the black men. Although there is a history of black mugging, the issue has been blown out of proportion. This argument will be supported by cases in Brents's essay, (263-268) and the authors he has mentioned therein.
Brent had newly moved as a graduate student at the University of Chicago the first time he was mistaken for a mugger by a white woman in the streets of Chicago. This fact of being a graduate student means that he was educated and this would likely cause him to have good intentions. However, this does not stop him from being generalized as any other black man. His physique; young, tall, broad, with a beard and billowing hair, and black, was an ideal description of a thug as can be explained by the reaction of the woman. Brent says the woman cast back a worried glance at him, picked up her pace and ran off earnestly. Although it was a reality that there were muggers from the surrounding ghetto that attacked women, this was not the case for Brent who claims that he was a softy who could not take a knife to raw chicken, let alone hold it against a persons throat. The womans flight shocked him, and he realized that he was indistinguishable from the real muggers. The encounters that followed between him and nighttime pedestrians, especially women, made him realize that he was being perceived as dangerous. This was hazardous especially if pulled over by policemen since as Brent puts it, where fear and weapons meet- and they often do in urban America- there is always a possibility of death.
The realization of the perception from the public as a danger put Brent in an awkward situation where he had to be accustomed to the language of fear. He says he got accustomed to drivers black, white, male and female- hammering down door locks whenever he passed. On some streets, people would cross to the other side of the street, rather than pass him. He got numerous screenings by security personnel such as police, bouncers, and doormen whose duty was to screen out troublesome individuals before they caused nastiness. Brent narrated one of his most frightening confusion incidents when he was working as a journalist in Chicago. The office manager of a magazine he was writing for confused him for a burglar and even called security. He was pursued and had to seek refuge in a company of someone who knew him. Another black journalist on an assignment to work on a story about a murderer in Waukegan, Illinois, was mistaken by the police for the killer. He was hauled from his car at gunpoint by the police and would probably have been booked save for his press credentials. These treatments by both the public and the police were unfair. Black men were being mishandled before proper verification of their identity first. This caused them to always be in an uneasy position fearing that some women would run off on seeing them or they would be pulled over by the police.
The stereotyping of black men as criminals seemed to be across the American states. This can be seen in Brents essay where the frightened reaction of the public and the treatment of the black men are similar in several states. First, there was Brents original experience when he was staying in Chicago, the case of the black journalist who was mistaken for a murderer in Illinois, and in Brooklyn where Brent lived at the period he was wrote the essay and he says that he often witnessed the hunched posture from women after dark as they clutch their purses across their chests. These instances being seen in different states show the prevalence of the issue of this identity conflict of the black men in America.
This essay acknowledges the existence of mugging history among the black community. Brent outlines occasions he had witnessed black youngsters getting involved in street crimes under the myth of being tough. He recalls how some of his boyhood friends got seduced by the idea of being tough and indulged themselves into mugging business. These youngsters would see themselves as tough if a victim cowered and surrendered his money without resistance. This is how many poor and powerless young men got involved in these criminal activities. In often cases, the black young men were drastically overrepresented in these violent activities, thus strengthening the notion of black men as dangerous. Brent says that he saw many of these so-called tough guys being locked away, and even buried some who had died in their crime expeditions. He also points out an essay, My Negro Problem and Ours written by Norman Podhoretz in 1963 in which the latter recalls growing up in terror of black males who were tougher and ruthless. Podhoretz claimed that even as an adult on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he could not constrain his nervousness when he met black men on certain streets. Podhoretz sentiments were echoed by an essayist and novelist Edward Hoagland a decade later when he extolled a New York where once Negro bitterness bore down mainly on other Negroes. Where some saw mere panhandlers, Hoagland could see a mugger who is clearly screwing up his nerve to do more than just ask for money. As such, Hoagland had adopted the New Yorkers quick hunch posture for broken-field maneuvering, a posture that Brent says he had witnessed with the women on the Brooklyn streets. These narrations explain the origin of the stereotype of blacks as criminals.
Brent explains that the making of the young criminal is inspired by several factors, one of them being the consummation of the male romance with the power to intimidate, (265). This explains why Brents boyhood friends deeply immersed themselves into street crimes on realizing that they could frighten and intimidate their victims. To them, this was being tough, having power and being in control. Naturally, it feels manly to be able to frighten and intimidate. Another factor is poverty. Brents first experience with the white woman in Chicago was in a relatively affluent neighborhood in a mean, impoverished section of the State. This section was a target from occasional muggers who came from the surrounding ghetto. When narrating about the young criminals in his neighborhood as a boy, Brent says it is the poor and powerless young men who took on crime as a solution literally. Again, it is only natural that people would mug to get money that they do not have, probably to meet their needs. Since the black formed the minority in America, they were most probably faced with these challenges of being powerless and poor, and thus the young men would resolve to crimes as a compensatory avenue for their lack. All the instances mentioned in the essay involve young people in their teenage years or early adulthood. This is a key indicator of the delicate situation that the young peoples ambitions are since they result in crime other than focusing on constructive activities that would help build their careers and future.
The situations on the streets and the treatment the black men faced from the public necessitated precautionary actions to be taken to keep off from danger. If a black man was mistakenly caught by the police and could not defend himself to the satisfaction of the police, they would be booked and probably killed in other instances. It is in this light that Brent chose to take precautions to appear less threatening to the public, (Staples, 267). He says that he moved with care, especially late in the evening, he would give a wide gap between him and people he notices are nervous on subway platforms during wee hours, particularly when he has changed from business clothes to jeans. In case he is entering a building behind people who appear skittish, he would walk on by, allowing them to clear the lobby before turning back and entering the building, so as not to be taken as if following them with ill intentions. He says that on the rare occasions he has been pulled over by the police, he always remained calm and extremely congenial. When walking on streets that are less traveled, he says that he applies what has been proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure, which is whistling classical melodies. This measure, according to Brent, was a success since it made the initially-suspicious public relax and would occasionally join in the tune. Brent says he would whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and everybody seemed to sense that no mugger would be warbling such melodies.
In summary, it is evident that the black minority, in particular men, have been victims of discrimination pegging to their identity as black men, rather than on individual identities. Owing to the history of black mugging, every other black young man has been branded as a danger that needs to be escaped. This perception has been carried on by all groups of people black, white, male and female- across America (Sullivan, 591-611). The presence of a young black man causes fear to the public and is only seen as a burglar or a mugger, whose sole intention is cause harm. Hoagland says that he sees every black young man as planning to do more than just ask for money. This position that the black men have been put into exposes them to horrifying experiences, particularly the innocent ones, such as being avoided by the public, being overly suspected and pulled over by the police, as well as being mishandled as a result of mistaken identity as in the case of the black journalist who was taken for a murderer, whose story he was to write. Since the situation does not improve even with the authorities, the black men are forced to device precautionary measures aimed at helping them survive while on the streets. Although the young black men are overly represented in acts of violence, this does not leave the actions solely to blacks. Additionally, it does not mean that every young black person is a criminal. Therefore, it is unfair to brand all black men criminals, and this calls for the massive creation of public awareness, and proper procedures of individual identity verification on the part of the authorities in cases where an individual is being suspected of anything.
Staples, Brent. "Just walk on by: A black man ponders his power to alter public space." Canadian content (2012): 263-268.
Sullivan, Shannon. "The Hearts and Guts of White People." Journal of Religious Ethics 42.4 (2014): 591-611.
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