Dr. Suzanne Scott
11 April 2013
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 bear 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.
Passage from Black Men and Public Space (1986) by Brent Staples.
Brent Staples is the writer and narrator of Black Men and Public Space, an essay in which he tells the reader examples of his own experiences that occurred because of stereotype-based fear coming from mainly Caucasians towards him, an African-American male. In his essay’s opening paragraph Staples uses alliteration, determiners, unusual word choice and variation in sentence length to simultaneously confuse and tell the reader about his own experiences with race stereotypes. The tone of the essay is instantly set in the first sentence by using the word ‘‘victim’’. It generates immediate confusion within the reader and raises the question of what the writer tries to tell us using this word, what the intentions of the narrator are with this ‘‘woman’’ and why she is a victim. These well-chosen first few words already create an eagerness to continue reading. As soon as the woman is mentioned her appearance is not kept a secret. Staples uses a dash to draw attention to the list of characteristics of the woman that he gives in the first sentence and the first word he uses to describe her is ‘‘white’’. This immediately raises the question of race and shows that the fact that she is white is apparently an important trait of the woman, hence an important detail regarding the story. The dash Staples uses shows how important the woman’s physical appearance is for this story. The reader will assume that the narrator is not white, only because he mentions that the woman is. I suspect that the reason for Staples use of the words ‘‘well dressed’’ rather than ‘‘chic’’, ‘‘elegant’’ or ‘‘stylish’’ is to generate alliteration between ‘‘woman’’, ‘‘white’’ and ‘‘well’’. This is another way to stress the woman and her appearance. ‘‘Well dressed’’ indicates that the woman is wealthy, or coming from a high-class background.
The first sentence of this paragraph sets the tone for the whole passage. It gives away that the woman is, in some sort of way, victimized (‘‘victim’’); that this victimization has something to do with race and class (‘‘white’’, ‘‘well dressed’’) and the personalization of the story by using a narrator (‘‘My’’) indicates that this story is possibly a biographical, true story.
The adverb ‘‘probably’’ in the first sentence confirms the expectation that the woman in question is unknown to the narrator. Neither the reader nor the narrator knows her identity at this point. We can speak of an expectation because of the use of the indefinite article ‘‘a’’ before ‘‘woman’’ and the superficial characteristics ‘‘white’’ and ‘‘well dressed’’. At the end of the first sentence Staples chose to use a full stop instead of letting the sentence continue into the second sentence to allow, maybe even force the reader to pause and give full attention to the woman’s appearance described in the first sentence.
In the second sentence, the extreme verb ‘‘deserted’’ gives the reader the feeling of total emptiness on that street in Hyde Park and exaggerates the loneliness of the two people; Staples and the white woman. In the first half of the second sentence Staples uses very short, abrupt...