write an essay composed of four-five paragraphs (at least 2 1/2 pages). Mention at least one of the following essays including at least two cited quotes or paraphrases: Staples, Gates, Kirby. Your one or more examples need to focus on at least one person using concrete, specific details, including at least one personal quote and the five W’s: who/what/where/when/why/how. Always tie back to your thesis statement and respond to every quote, whether personal or cited. Also include a citation page.
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Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space
Brent Staples (b. 1951) earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago and went on to become a journalist. The
following essay originally appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1986, under the title “Just Walk On By.” Staples revised it slightly for
publication in Harper’s a year later under the present title. The particular occasion for Staples’s reflections is an incident that
occurred for the first time in the mid-1970s, when he discovered that his mere presence on the street late at night was enough to
frighten a young white woman. Recalling this incident leads him to reflect on issues of race, gender, and class in the United States.
As you read, think about why Staples chose the new title, “Black Men and Public Space.”
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 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 seconds she disappeared into a cross street.
That 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 inheritance I’d come into the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought
herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insomnia, 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 one
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 indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally
seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that followed, signified that
a vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians particularly women and me. And I soon gathered
that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a
corner into a dicey situation, or crowd 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.
In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the
language of fear. At dark, shadowy intersections, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and
elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver black, white, male, or female hammering down the door locks.
On less traveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the
other side of the street rather than pass me. Then there were the standard unpleasantries with policemen,
doormen, bouncers, cabdrivers, and others whose business it is to screen out troublesome individuals before
there is any nastiness.
I moved to New York nearly two years ago and I have remained an avid night walker. In central
Manhattan, the near-constant crowd cover minimizes tense one-on-one street encounters. Elsewhere in
SoHo, for example, where sidewalks are narrow and tightly spaced buildings shut out the sky things can get
very taut indeed.
After dark, on the warrenlike streets of Brooklyn where I live, I often see women who fear the worst
from me. They seem to have set their faces on neutral, and with their purse straps strung across their chests
bandolier-style, they forge ahead as though bracing themselves against being tackled. I understand, of course,
that the danger they perceive is not a hallucination. Women are particularly vulnerable to street
violence, and young black males are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence. Yet
these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, a fearsome
entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact.
It is not altogether clear to me how I reached the ripe old age of twenty-two without being
conscious of the lethality nighttime pedestrians attributed to me. Perhaps it was because in Chester,
Pennsylvania, the small, angry industrial town where I came of age in the 1960s, I was scarcely noticeable
against a backdrop of gang warfare, street knifings, and murders. I grew up one of the good boys, had
perhaps a half-dozen fistfights. In retrospect, my shyness of combat has clear sources.
As a boy, I saw countless tough guys locked away; I have since buried several, too. They were babies,
really a teenage cousin, a brother of twenty-two, a childhood friend in his mid-twenties all gone down in
episodes of bravado played out in the streets. I came to doubt the virtues of intimidation early on. I chose,
perhaps unconsciously, to remain a shadow-timid, but a survivor.
The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor. The most
frightening of these confusions occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked as a journalist in
Chicago. One day, rushing into the office of a magazine I was writing for with a deadline story in hand, I was
mistaken for a burglar. The office manager called security and, with an ad hoc posse, pursued me through the
labyrinthine halls, nearly to my editor’s door. I had no way of proving who I was. I could only move briskly
toward the company of someone who knew me.
Another time I was on assignment for a local paper and killing time before an interview. I entered a
jewelry store on the city’s affluent Near North Side. The proprietor excused herself and returned with an
enormous red Doberman pinscher straining at the end of a leash. She stood, the dog extended toward me,
silent to my questions, her eyes bulging nearly out of her head. I took a cursory look around, nodded, and
bade her good night.
Relatively speaking, however, I never fared as badly as another black male journalist. He went to
nearby Waukegan, Illinois, a couple of summers ago to work on a story about a murderer who was born
there. Mistaking the reporter for the killer, police officers hauled him from his car at gunpoint and but for his
press credentials would probably have tried to book him. Such episodes are not uncommon. Black men trade
tales like this all the time.
Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal. Not to do
so would surely have led to madness. I now take precautions to make myself less threatening. I move about
with care, particularly late in the evening. I give a wide berth to nervous people on subway platforms during
the wee hours, particularly when I have exchanged business clothes for jeans. If I happen to be entering a
building behind some people who appear skittish, I may walk by, letting them clear the lobby before I return,
so as not to seem to be following them. I have been calm and extremely congenial on those rare occasions
when I’ve been pulled over by the police.
And on late-evening constitutionals I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing
measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical 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 wouldnt 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
For Discussion and W riting
1. How does Staples describe himself? How is he sometimes seen by others?
2. Staples begins his essay by discussing the effect of his presence on another person. However,
others reactions to his presence affect him in return, and he spends much of the essay explaining
the emotional and practical effects he experiences as a consequence of his interactions. How is
the complication and paradox of these situations expressed by the last sentence about Staples
whistling classical music being the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know
they are in bear country (paragraph 12)?
3. The person with whom you find yourself identifying in a story sometimes depends on your own
identity. With whom did you identify at the start of Staples essay, and how did it affect your
reading of the full piece?
Inked Well – The American Interest
4/18/18, 5(33 PM
The sudden popularity of tattoos among the American bourgeoisie
is undeniable. But what does it mean?
And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his
island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a
complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the
art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle
to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even
himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them . . . .
Moby-Dick, Chapter 110
Some tattooed people are easier to read than others. When Richard Costello
tried to sell stolen motorcycle parts on eBay earlier this year, he put the items
on the floor and photographed them, though the photos also included his bare
feet, with the word White tattooed on one and Trash on the other. The
bikes lawful owner did a Web search, found what appeared to be the stolen
parts, and notified the Clearwater, Florida, police department. Since jail
records typically include identifying marks, it didnt take long for local
detectives to identify Costello and set up a sting. He was arrested after
showing up with a van full of stolen parts and is now facing trial. While
incarceration isnt always damaging to a criminals reputationit shows a
fellows out there trying, after allhes already known in every bike shop and
beer joint on the west coast of Florida as the idiot who put photos of his
tattooed feet on the Web so the police could nab him. According to Sergeant
Greg Stewart, Costello just tiptoed his way back to jail.
Page 1 of 11
Inked Well – The American Interest
4/18/18, 5(33 PM
LAffaire White Trash confirmed just about everything that I thought about
tattoos until recently; namely, that in addition to being nasty and unsanitary,
tattoos only grace the skins of either bottom feeders or those who want to
pretend they are. Richard Costellos phenomenal act of self-betrayal wouldnt
have been a surprise at all to modernist architect Adolph Loos, whose
influential 1908 essay Ornament and Crime is still cited today as a potent
argument against frills and fancy stuff. Loos wrote in effect a manifesto
opposing decoration, which he saw as a mark of primitive cultures, and in
favor of simplicity, which is a sign of, well, modernism. Thus, Loos reasoned,
its okay for a Pacific Islander to cover himself and all his possessions with ink
and carvings, whereas a modern person [i.e., a European] who tattoos himself
is either a criminal or a degenerate. . . . People with tattoos not in prison are
either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats.
So, presuming the kid with a Tweety Bird tattoo on his forearm who delivered
your pizza last night isnt a down-on-his-luck baronet whos trying to earn
enough money to return to his ancestral estate in Northumberland and claim
his seat on the Queens Privy Council, does the fact that hes slinging pies
mean that he simply hasnt lived long enough to commit his first murder? Not
necessarily: Tattoos have a richer social history than one might think.
Tattoos were brought to Europe from Polynesia by 18th-century British
explorers, as Margo DeMello writes in Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History
of the Modern Tattoo Community (2000). Europeans who had tattoos in those
days were not social bottom dwellers. And as Charles C. Mann points out in
1491 (2005), Americans first saw tattoos in the New World on their conflicted
Indian hosts as early as 1580. William Wood, a Pilgrim colonist, described the
Indian chiefs of New England as having tattooed their faces, arms and legs
with elaborate geometric patterns and totemic animal symbols. To Protestants
of ascetic temperaments, these exotic displays were of a piece with the
colonists propensity to see Indians as primeval savages.
Perhaps predictably, however, tattoos came ultimately to signify patriotism
rather than exoticism in the United States. The first known professional tattoo
artist in the United States was one Martin Hildebrandt, who set up shop in
New York City in 1846. Hildebrandt became instrumental in establishing the
tradition of the tattooed serviceman by practicing his craft on soldiers and
sailors on both sides in the Civil War as he migrated from one camp to
Page 2 of 11
Inked Well – The American Interest
4/18/18, 5(33 PM
And then occurred one of those curious little shifts that makes history so
delicious. Tattoos became fashionable among members of the European
aristocracy, who encountered the practice during 19th-century trips to the Far
East. By the beginning of World War I, though, the lords and ladies had all but
abandoned bodily decoration. Why? Because by then, anybody could get a
tattoo. The laborious process involving hand-tapping ink into the skin with a
single needle was made obsolete with the invention of the electric tattoo
machine in 1891. Tattooing suddenly became easier, less painful and, mainly,
cheaper. This led to the speedy spread of the practice throughout the working
class and its abandonment by the rich.
By the middle of the 20th century, tattooing seemed largely the province of
bikers, convicts and other groups on the margins of society, much as Adolph
Loos had predicted. Except for all those patriotic servicemen, a century ago
tattoos were the tribal marks that you paid somebody to cut into your skin so
that everyone would know you belonged to a world populated by crooks and
creeps, along with a few bored aristocrats who would probably have been
attracted to living a life of crime had their trust funds not rendered it
redundant. And if things had stayed that way, I wouldnt be writing this essay:
Like leather vests with gang insignias, unmuffled exhaust pipes, and extended
middle fingers, tattoos would be simply one more way of differentiating
Them from Us.
But We are the ones who are tattooed now: In the late 20th century, the
middle class began showing up in droves at tattoo parlors. A study in the June
2006 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reveals that
as many as 24 percent of men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 have
one or more tattoosup from just 15 to 16 percent in 2003. Men and women
are equally likely to be tattooed, though the women surveyed are more likely
to have body piercings, as well. These days the little old lady sitting next to
you in church may have a tattoo, as may your accountant, even the plastic
surgeon performing your tattoo removal.
How did this change come to pass? Those of us who are certain well never get
a tattoo will always shudder with joy when we read about knuckleheads like
Richard Costello. But more and more people who wouldnt have dreamed of
being tattooed a few years back are stepping into businesses with names like
Demented Again and Moms Body Shop (the names of two California
Page 3 of 11
Inked Well – The American Interest
4/18/18, 5(33 PM
tattoo studios) and paying good money to have sketches of boom boxes and
court jesters and spider webs incised into their hides. Why, and what does it
say about the world we live in?
To answer these questions, I walked the streets of Tallahassee, Florida,
accosting total and sometimes menacing-looking strangers with the intent of
asking them questions about the most intimate parts of their bodies. In the
process, I went out of my way to sound as though I had done my homework
and cared about my subject. (Hint: No matter how repelled you may be, when
asking people questions about their bodies, its advisable to heap on the
praise. I got into the habit of pretending my subject was showing me a
photograph of a newborn baby, say, rather than a blotchy, sun-damaged line
drawing of Godzilla destroying St. Patricks Cathedral.) Most of the time, my
approach worked, kind of: I usually gave subjects my business card and asked
if I could call or e-mail them to set up an interview at my university English
Department office. These were people of both sexes ranging from their
twenties to their forties; roughly half looked as fierce as pirates, while the
others appeared to be middle-class types with a little extra ink on their skin.
Some never responded, but most did.
Any stereotypes of tattooed victims I had fell by the wayside rather quickly.
One of my first lessons was that people can get the biggest, most colorful
tattoos either for exceedingly complex reasons or none at all. Jen (Ill use first
names only), a pretty, slender brunette in her late twenties, said getting a
tattoo was simply on a list of things she wanted to do, like learning a new
language or visiting a state shed never been to. Her tat, as tattoos are often
called, is an ornate scroll that goes all the way across her lower back where she
cant see it without using a mirror because I didnt want to be defined by it,
Jen told me. I just want to know its there. Melissa, a grad student in modern
languages whom I spied in a bookstore wearing a pair of low-slung jeans, got a
black and blue love knot high on one hip because she and her friend wanted
identical tattoos, even though shes not my friend anymore.
Becky wanted a tattoo that would be a means of making a promise to myself
that I would become the person I wanted to be, that I would improve my life
through hard work. She explained the design:
I knew I wanted wings; the idea of ascension was very compelling to me. But
angel wing tattoos are common, and of course, such a design has religious
connotations. So my tattoo is a pair of mechanical wings, a rising up by means
Page 4 of 11
Inked Well – The American Interest
4/18/18, 5(33 PM
of human ingenuity. And of course, the need for temperance, the Icarus myth,
is implied as well.
Hmm, Im thinking: mechanical wings? But Becky was right. When I viewed
the tattoo on her back (she wore a backless top for her interview), it appeared
as though the wings, which had more of a gossamer, da Vinci-esque, Wilburand-Orville/early days of flight quality than the word mechanical suggests,
were somehow connected to Beckys tendons and ligaments. It seemed that,
with a shrug or two, she could lift off and flap gracefully around the building
that housed my office. (The protocols involved in asking young ladies to show
you their tattoos is a subject in itself. Being older and having a track record as
a writer helps, as do frequent references to my wife, who always sent me off
with the same fi …
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