While doing some light reading during this extremely low-key summer, I stumbled across “Just Walk on By,” a short piece of work by Brent Staples (can be found here in pdf form: http://myweb.scu.edu.tw/~jmklassen/scu100b/rdngconv/Staples.pdf). Published in 1986 in a newspaper, this short story promised to present a perspective about race that many people fail to consider. Thus, I began to read…
Brent Staples’ opening sentence, “My first victim was a woman…?” immediately brought me to rapt attention. Judging from the main idea of the passage revolving around race, and the opening sentence starting with the words “victim” and “woman” laced together, the reader’s mind cannot help but be jolted to one word- “rape.”
However, it is not due to the reader being racist at all- it is due to the fact being that the essay appeared in a magazine in the year 1986, a date when America was still plagued by a disease which ran deep beneath its roots- racism. This was a time when African Americans were only just granted the fundamental right by President Lyndon B Johnson to overcome all barriers, whether legal or social, to vote. This was a time when African Americans were receiving 50% longer sentences of incarceration than whites for possession of the same drugs. Racism and the idea that a black man could rape a white woman was a legitimate fear of society back then, and it is not surprising that the author could use this to his advantage to create an enticing hook.
As I continued to read and ponder Brent Staples’ choice of words, I realized that the woman was not the victim of the author at all. Although the woman “picked up her pace and was soon running with earnest,” it is not the author that the woman is afraid of and running away from; it is the stereotype society has attached onto the author and his ethnic group, causing paranoia and unfounded fear. Because society has domesticated each person to think in this way- that black men will rape white women, that black men are big and strong and ruthless, society has also domesticated in people the idea that the probability of a black men being a kind, gentle giant is slim. Society has instigated and promoted an unfounded fear in people we barely know, just because of their skin tone.
All these thoughts, just from one sentence. An author sure is a beholder of power.