On Being a Black Man in Office 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.


The opening from Brent Staples’ article “Black Men and Public Space” that originally appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1986 under the title “Just Walk on Bye” but later was republished in Harper’s with the title “”Black Men and Public Space.”

I first read “Black Men in Public Space” in August of 1997. It was one of my first assignments for English 101 at the College of Charleston. I was 30 lbs lighter, a whole lot more naive, and my hairline and waves were intact. I still cursed like a sailor, listened to a lot more Wu-Tang, and had yet to develop my affinity for Anheuser-Busch products. I was the solitary black male in a class that was filled with white sorority pledges, a ditsy black girl from Greenville, a couple of Joe Charleston types, and an ex Recon Marine who looked like a younger thinner ultra lethal Charlie Steiner that decided to start his next act in life as a college student and an Applebee’s waiter.

For those of you who didn’t bother to click the link to read Staple’s article here’s a summary. Staples talks about which he and millions of black men in America consciously and subconsciously carry themselves in public in America. The article delves into the “perception” of black males by larger elements of society. In summation, and these are my words and not those of Mr. Staples—Sometimes our presence is enough to scare people enough to run for the hills. (Yes, this may be a sweeping generalization, something I try to refrain from, but follow me please.)

The reason why I thought about this article is because of my day at work on yesterday, a conversation I had with my friend O a while back, and another that I had with some co-workers during the 2008 election.

I was talking with O, who finds himself in a rare position—He is a black male, R.N. in a Cardiac Care Unit at one of the large hospitals in the area. As anyone would expect O is the only black man in his position at his hospital. Every time we talk to one another we ask “How’s the job?” so we naturally end up swapping war stories about the office. Some how we got onto the topic of just wanting to flip out at work one good time and get away with it like our non-black counterparts could. O made a comment about him trying to explain our position to several of his co-workers and them “not getting it.” He even further expounded that many of the non-nursing hospital staff who are black have at times whispered things like “Keep your cool.” or “Don’t let it get to you.” to him because they, like many other members of the Legion of the Darker-hued, know that a black man flipping out at work or in public just ain’t kosher.

As our conversation continued I related many of the same feelings about wanting to flip out at the job while maintaining employment and not going to county. This lead too many of the conversations I had with my co-workers about why Barack Obama was always so cool during the 2008 presidential campaigns. I simply told them that he is pissed at all of his idiot detractors in his mind and has probably called them things that Rudy Ray Moore wouldn’t have said. I went on to further explain that his “coolness” is his armor because if he said what were on his mind he would still be the junior senator from Illinois and not the P.O.T.U.S. #fail. I told them that the standards for black male rage and white male rage are much different although white male rage has historically done more damage to the world than its black counterpart.

This leads me too yesterday. Every so often my inner anger reaches a boiling point due to idiocy, my own a**holiness, my co-workers, and many other varying factors but yesterday I had to do my best to remember every lesson about “knowing how to act” that I learned from Steve and Lois. The specifics of my inner rage isn’t important but the fact that I got so angry that I stopped talking, began to twitch, and left my office so that I can calm down. How does one keep going when can’t express an emotion because of who he inherently is?

When do I get to show my a** on the job and keep said job? When do I get to tell my comrades who are absolutely getting on my nerves to shove off? I’m just asking because I found myself on the edge yesterday, but like Brent Staples I utilized my cowbell and warned those around me of the presence of my anger by scowling constantly, and then I just walked away and calmed myself. (If you read Staples article that would’ve made sense to you.)

If Kanye West is waiting on his spaceship, I’m waiting on my on the job blow up. I’m not a monster or a thug, I’m just angry just like you.

Vaya con Dios.


One response to “On Being a Black Man in Office Space

  1. Pingback: Black male rage and other things that Google helps you find. | Up Here on Cloud 9

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