Night Walker

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Brent Staples hold a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago and often writes about the African-American experience in his essays, which have appeared in such publications as the New York Times and has published the autobiographical Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (19947) for which he won the Anisfield Wolff Book Award.

Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponder’s His Power to Alter Public Space

1MY 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 neigh-borhood 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. 2She 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 sec-onds she disappeared into a cross street. 3That 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 inher-itance I'd come into—the ability to alter pub-lic space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insom-nia, 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 it 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 indis-tinguishable from the muggers who occasion-ally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that...
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