In his essay titled “Black Men and Public Space”, Brent Staples describes his first encounter with his “victim”, a well dressed white woman in her early twenties, as follows:

“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.”

Staples goes on to describe moments in his life that made him realize black men and public spaces, unfortunately, don’t mix well in America. 

Initial Publication 

Initially, Staples published the essay under the title “Just Walk On By” in 1986 in Ms. Magazine. One year later, he revised the essay and republished it in Harper’s under the title “Black Men and Public Space.”

The latter title is one that brings on flashes of recent news headlines that prove this issue is a timeless one. 

There is an acknowledgment from Staples that any woman would be o n edge when walking alone at night. But the story doesn’t end on the streets of Chicago or New York. His boogieman image follows him when he goes into jewelry stores, at lobbies, and even his own office building! 

That’s why “Black Men and Public Space” might be an older essay but it is a timeless issue. 

Brent Staples
Sack #200100128

Just look at these very recent news headlines. 

“Police apologizes for helping kick black man out of yogurt shop”

A black man was sitting in a frozen yogurt shop at a table by himself. He was there to supervise a court-sanctioned outing between a mother and her son. The owner of the shop called the police to have him removed from the shop because he looked suspicious. 

“Black Man Arrested After Helping Intoxicated Neighbor”

 A black man saw that his neighbor was drunk and passed out in front of his place. He helped the neighbor to his house, but when he returned, he was questioned and detained by the police who claimed that he was the intoxicated one. 

“Black Man Handcuffed While Police Searched His Bags After Being Falsely Accused Of Stealing From Finish Line”

A black man, his friend, and his two sons were detained by police after they were falsely accused of stealing. 

And let’s not forget the infamous Starbucks case.

“Two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for doing nothing” 

Two black men were arrested and removed from Starbucks two minutes after arriving for a business meeting. One of them asked to use the restroom before police were called on them. 

This is the story of black men in public spaces in America

With the exception of the Starbucks story, all of them took place within a one week span. 

And these are the ones that had police called on.

The experience Staples describes is a stigma black men carry around with them as soon as they step outside their homes, regardless of the police being involved. It is the perpetual state of being the boogieman.

And these are the ones that ended without the lives of the black men being taken. 

“And I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself,” writes Staples. “I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowed 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.” 

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We know all too well about those endings 

All a person has to claim is that they felt threatened in order to take a black man’s life. And what’s a more threatening figure than a black man? Countless shootings of black men and black teens have happened in recent years, especially in states with stand-your-ground laws. 

Thirty years plus have passed since “Black Men and Public Space”, but it might as well have been written last week. The experience of black men in America is as timeless as sliced bread.

How long will this continue? 

Staples found one solution that seemed to work for him, to make his “victims” feel more at ease in his presence.

“I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and more popular classic 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 bear country.” 

What’s the cowbell we must make our black men wear, if only to save their lives? 

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Roman Debotch is a filmmaker, photographer, and co-founder of blackexcellence.com. Through the platform that is Black Excellence, she has been able to marry her passion for story telling with her passion for issues affecting the black community. Roman earned her B.A. in Film and TV Studies and ventured into the world of video production after college. She produced music, corporate, and event videos for years before co-founding BlackExcellence.com. Since then, she has been working as a contributor to the platform as well as continuing her video production business. The very limited time Roman is away from either writing or shooting a video, she can be found hiking or enjoying one of Southern California's beautiful beaches.

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