Society Through the Eyes of the Unwelcomed: Black Men and Public Space

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Prejudice has caused the pain and suffering of cultures for many centuries. In author, Audre Lorde’s, “The Fourth of July,” as well as Brent Staples, “Just Walk on By Black Men and Public Space,” we see how the lives of two separate individuals are affected by racism in America. Each author tells the story of their lives growing up and while they differ tremendously, they both share a common theme of injustice purely based on the color of their skin. As they navigate through their lives, they undergo the first-hand effects of discrimination and share similar experiences relating to society’s response to their existence. However, their attitude towards racism begins to differ as their stories develop which can be supported by their rhetorical strategies.

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The most obvious similarity among the two authors is the discrimination and injustice they experience as African American individuals. Audre Lorde grew up during the 1950s during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. In her essay titled “The Fourth of July” Lorde highlights several moments from her childhood that she now understands to be the product of racist stereotypes. Firstly, Lorde discusses her family vacation to Washington D.C. that was planned in place of her older sister, Phyllis’s, high school senior trip. Phyllis’s deposit for her class trip was returned to her in secrecy after the nuns at her high school explained that she “would not be happy” on the trip. Her father later explained to Phyllis that she was actually excluded from the trip because the hotel that her classmates would be staying at denied service to African American individuals. However, it did not end there. The injustice continued as the Lorde family went forth on their separate trip to D.C. Lorde recalls a time where she and her family decided to stop for ice cream just before returning to their hotel. Again, she and her family were denied the right to sit inside of the restaurant because of their skin color.

Brent Staples also experienced this sort of discrimination in public settings. His short essay, “Just Walk on By Black Men and Public Space,” discusses the adversity of being black in a dominantly white world during the same time period as Audre Lorde. At twenty-two years old, Staples moved to Chicago as a graduate student at the university. Though he was a well-rounded individual, he noticed that others, primarily white women, viewed him as a threat to themselves and society. He recalls several occasions where women would run away, cross the street, or even lock their car doors at the sight of him walking alone at night. He described his encounters with policemen, doormen, bouncers, and cab drivers as unpleasant, and once, he was even mistaken for a burglar in his own place of work.

Though Audre Lorde and Brent Staples both experienced acts of injustice coming up during the Civil Rights Movement, their response to the hatred they received varied quite a bit. Unlike Staples, Lorde had an issue with accommodating society’s demands. Referring back to her childhood, she was capable of recognizing that she and her family were treated unfairly, but it was the question as to why they were treated unfairly that remained a mystery to her young, inexperienced mind. Through writing, she expressed her frustration toward her parents for their nonchalant attitude concerning acts of discrimination. Lorde explained that they refused to address racism to “best protect their children from the realities of race in America” (222). This instilled an angry mentality within Audre Lorde at a very young age. From this, she was able to decide for herself that she, unlike her parents, would not keep quiet when it came to discrimination against Black people in the United States.

Brent Staples took a different approach to society’s injustice. As stated before, he enjoyed walking around at night but he realized that being perceived as dangerous was a far bigger threat to his own well-being than it was to anyone else’s. For this very reason, he began to accommodate society’s fear of his skin color; allowing people who seemed afraid to pass before entering a building or leaving a wide space between himself and a nervous passenger on the subway. He chose not to give in to the rage that discrimination bestowed in him, but rather molded himself into a version of himself that society could tolerate. Brent Staples’s attitude toward racism was not a choice. Had he spoken out or used his knowledge to revolt against prejudices he would likely be in jail or far worse. Though it isn’t fair, the outcome of his life was in the hands of society. Therefore, conforming to its concerns, regardless of their illegitimacy, was a must not only for him but for any Black man during that period of time.

Another major difference among the author’s work is their use of rhetorical devices. Staples uses rhetorical devices to appeal to the emotions of the audience. For instance, by sympathizing with his victims and justifying their feelings, he appeals to ethos. He opens his essay by stating, “My first victim was a woman – white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties” (339). He then goes on to describe himself from her point of view, selecting words that she most likely would have used. “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” (339). Staples deliberately picked words that implemented a negative connotation on himself as a rhetorical tool that intensified the emotions of the audience. However, as the reader progresses, it becomes apparent that the initial impression he implemented on the audience was bias. He builds credibility in his essay by introducing his impressive background and education. In doing this, the author effectively manages to extract a sense of guilt from the audience. He states, “It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls, that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I had come into, the ability to alter public space in ugly ways” (339), to draw emotion and sympathy from the reader for assuming in the beginning that he was a predator. As the essay unfolds, Staples continues to use diction that evokes empathy. For example, “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” (340). This quote shows that Staples was not angry about the discriminatory acts placed upon him but rather used to the way people behaved in response to his skin color, which builds respect for the author as well.

In “The Fourth of July,” Audre Lorde uses a different approach to get her point across to the audience. Instead of appealing to the emotions of the readers, as Staples did, Lorde uses irony to produce an effect on her readers that displays her anger and frustration. Because the book is written from her point of view as a child, Lorde uses dramatic irony to allow the readers to understand the prejudices that she faces while her character self is blind to the discrimination. For example, when young Audre Lorde is reminded that she cannot eat in the railroad dining cars because black people were not allowed inside during the 1950s, she uses dramatic irony to express her frustration in the way that her mother handled the situation. Lorde writes, “As usual, whatever my mother did not like and could not change, she ignored. Perhaps it would go away, deprived of her attention” (222). She includes this sarcasm to represent what she knows now as an adult: ignoring the problem will never fix it. Lorde also uses verbal irony toward the end of the essay. She says, “I view Julys through an agonizing corolla of dazzling whiteness and I always hated the Fourth of July, even before I came to realize the travesty such a celebration was for black people in this country” (223). This quote represents Lorde’s anger at how our nation’s capital is a symbol of freedom for all American citizens and yet the country is plagued by racism from white citizens. Lorde then uses the word ‘white’ six times in the last paragraph of the essay. “The waitress was white, and the counter white, and the ice cream I never ate in Washington D.C….”(224) with also other hints of the use of ‘white’ earlier in the essay, such as the description of the sidewalks and how they even seemed to be whiter in D.C. The constant use of the word ‘white’ and its context clearly reveals Audre Lord’s anger at the racism happening within America at the time.

Both Brent Staples and Audre Lorde experienced acts of discrimination and prejudice growing up during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. While Audre Lorde was angry about the way her childhood unfolded, Brent Staples chose to accommodate society’s demands in the best interest of his own safety. Each author uses their own rhetorical devices to relate their stories to the audience and gain their support and sympathy. Each essay is unique in that the authors have two very different attitudes toward discrimination however, both authors are effective in communicating the inequality that they overcame growing up as a Black individual in America during the 1950s.  

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