When I was 23 and in my first year of teaching, in 1997, my department chair handed me the Bedford Reader and told me to steer my sophomores through the basics of composition. Brent Staples’ masterfully written “Black Men and Public Spaces,” in the anthology, was particularly resonant for me and for my students.
In the essay, Staples describes what it’s like to be outdoors in society and to have strangers respond to his presence in a number of nervous ways — women crossing the street, drivers locking their car doors, and other undeniable yet hard to prove things that told him he was doing something different from what he thought he was doing, which was walking down the street.
Staples responded by whistling classical music as he walked, to let others know that he posed no threat.
Social psychologist Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, explores the impact of stereotype threat, a peculiar situation in which people behave in unusual ways out of fear that their actions may confirm negative stereotypes about their social group.
For Staples, this behavior looked like whistling. For students, Steele’s and others’ research shows, this behavior can look like academic underachievement.
Staples paints such a powerful picture of a grown man lonely in the world, whistling to keep not others but himself safe in the face of their fear.
Today, and in light of recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island, I learned that we have not come as far as I believed we would when I first began teaching, and naively assumed that in the future, no one would need to do anything as sad as to use music as a shield against bodily harm.