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Staples, Brent (A.) 1951-

STAPLES, Brent (A.) 1951-

PERSONAL: Born September 13, 1951, in Chester, PA; son of Melvin (a truck driver) and Geneva (a homemaker; maiden name, Patterson) Staples. Education: Widener University, B.A. (cum laude), 1973; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1977.

ADDRESSES: Offıce—New York Times, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.

CAREER: Adjunct professor of psychology at colleges in Pennsylvania and Illinois, 1977-81; Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago, IL, reporter, 1982-83; New York Times, New York, NY, editorial writer, 1983—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Danforth Fellowship for graduate study; Anisfield-Wolff Book Award, Cleveland Foundation, for Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White; honorary doctorate in humane letters, Mount St. Mary College (Newburgh, NY), 2000.


Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (autobiography), Random House (New York), 1994.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Harper's, Ms., New Republic, New York Woman, New York Times, and New York Times Book Review.

SIDELIGHTS: New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples is the author of Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White, an autobiography that details his rise from an underprivileged childhood to his acquisition of a prestigious post at the Times. Although Staples is an African American, his book is not about what has been called the "black experience"; in fact, Staples is quoted by Paul Galloway, writing in the Chicago Tribune, as saying: "I despise the expression ['black experience']. . . . Black people's lives in this country are too varied to be reduced to a single term. . . . I'm writing about universal themes—family and leaving home and developing your own identity—which all Americans can enjoy and understand. . . . Being black enriches my experience; it doesn't define me." Staples, therefore, objected to his book's release during Black History Month, which he says "ghettoizes literature." But reviewers of Parallel Time appeared to recognize the autonomous stance Staples assumes in his book. New York Times contributor Michael Eric Dyson, for example, wrote: "Staples has surpassed the need for imitation, revealing a resolutely distinct voice as he negotiates the treacherous shoals of racial identity in American culture. . . . [Staples's book] reminds us that the best personal writing is born of the courage to confront oneself." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Abigail Thernstrom explained: "Staples is speaking for himself; he has written a deeply personal, moving memoir that contains no overt 'message for our time.'" "We often understand Black experience as if it were an 'other.'. . . Staples shows us an American life, not different but . . . so much bigger, so much more intense, so much more painful . . . amplified so loud it hurts my ears, hurts my soul," remarked Daniel E. Moerman, a professor at the University of Michigan—Dearborn, in his Faculty Perspectives article.

The oldest son of nine children, Staples was born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania, then a prosperous shipbuilding center, where his father worked as a truck driver. Although he can recall a time when the family's needs were met, Staples writes that his father's increasingly heavy drinking caused the family's decline and loss of security. In the 1960s the family was further devastated by the poverty that came to Chester as some 40,000 people were suddenly jobless as a result of plant closings. Staples and his family moved seven times before he finished junior high school, running from landlords before they were evicted and eluding creditors. "The chaos of these moves swallowed things that would never be seen again," Staples wrote in an excerpt of Parallel Time published in the New York Times. "Family portraits. Volumes from the set of encyclopedias. Legal documents of every sort, including birth certificates, leaving some of us uncertain of when we were born. Each new house was a change of skin."

Despite the interruptions in his life caused by frequent moves, Staples managed to graduate from high school, but with little thought of going to college. A chance meeting with a college professor, however, resulted in his acceptance into Project Prepare, a program that recruited twenty-three black students for attendance at PMC Colleges (Pennsylvania Military College and Penn Morton College), later to become Widener University. There, Staples thrived; he was president of his freshman class, he was regularly on the dean's list, he graduated cum laude, and he earned a Danforth Fellowship to assist him in pursuing graduate studies.

Staples studied for his doctorate in behavioral sciences at the University of Chicago. He was at once enthralled with the gray turrets and towers of the university, and enjoyed taking long walks along Lake Michigan at night. His peaceful solitude was disrupted one night, however, by the realization that his presence made others uneasy, especially whites, as they passed by this tall, broad-shouldered black man in the dark. "I'd been a fool," Staples writes in Parallel Time. "I'd been grinning at people who were frightened to death of me. I did violence to them by just being. . . . I became expert in the language of fear. Couples locked arms or reached for each other's hand when they saw me. . . . I tried to be innocuous but didn't know how." At first when he realized others were afraid of him, Staples went out of his way, literally, to ease their fears, taking a different path or changing his pace so that others would know he was not following them. Or he would begin whistling; his melodic renditions of Beatles tunes or Vivaldi compositions seemed to render him harmless in the minds of passersby.

One day, however, Staples tired of accommodating the unwarranted fears of others. As a white couple approached him, he saw them draw close to one another and heard their conversation abruptly halt, as though their attention turned from conversing to avoiding harm. Normally Staples would have begun whistling and moving out of their way. For some reason, on this night he deviated, heading towards them so they had to separate for him to pass through. The fear in their eyes caused Staples to break out in laughter, and from then on he found great amusement in playing "Scatter the Pigeons," as he dubbed his game. Commenting on Staples's pastime, Jack E. White wrote in his Time magazine review of Parallel Time: "There are few better examples in literature of the contained fury toward whites that grips even the most outwardly docile black man."

Staples earned his Ph.D. in 1977 with his thesis on the mathematics of decision-making and went on to hold several teaching positions before accepting a reporter's position at the Chicago Sun-Times. He later joined the staff of the New York Times, where he serves on the editorial board, writing editorials on politics and culture. His first full-length publication, Parallel Time, is Staples's autobiography detailing his rise to success. But it is also the grim story of his younger brother Blake, a drug dealer who was killed by a drug customer. Staples had tried to help Blake escape from his life as a drug-dealer, even offering to buy him a plane ticket to a new start in life, but Blake never managed to change his situation. Blake's death came as no shock to Staples, who had prepared himself over and over again, imagining Blake's death and rehearsing his funeral, as he became resigned to the increasing likelihood that Blake was never going to escape his bleak existence and would die young.

Although Staples clearly imagined his brother's funeral, he did not attend the event. In a passage from his autobiography, the author contemplates how the failure to be present at Blake's funeral affected Staples later. In Parallel Times he wrote: "I'd done my mourning in advance. But this was self-deception on a monstrous scale. The rituals of grief and burial bear the dead away. Cheat those rituals and you risk keeping the dead with you in forms that you mightn't like. Choose carefully the funerals you miss."

New York Times Book Review critic Verlyn Klinkenborg observed that an "important parallel in Parallel Time" is "the one between black and black. Brent Staples has a shadow in this book: his younger brother Blake. . . . Because he died, Blake Staples is quintessentially the young man who did not escape Chester, who barely escaped adolescence. Had he lived, he might have been able to grow into something less quintessential." Nevertheless, Klinkenborg observed: "Parallel Time is not a tract or apologia, nor is it intended to be a chronicle of injustice. It is a complex portrait of a worldly education, written at times with affection, at times with a sting." Klinkenborg added: "a memoir is not a door through which others can flee the past. No one gets out but the author."

Staples feels strongly that he was able to escape his past because of the affirmative action program. In a 1995 New York times editorial, he wrote: "When I was seventeen, the society spotted me a few points on the S.A.T.'s and changed my life. I became a writer—and a middle-class taxpayer—as many other black men went on to prison, cemeteries and homeless shelters. Sounds like a smart investment to me. The country would be wise to keep making it."



Staples, Brent, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (autobiography), Random House (New York, NY), 1994.


American Visions, April-May, 1994, review of Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White, p. 28.

Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1994, review of Parallel Time.

Ebony, May, 1994, review of Parallel Time, p. 21.

Essence, June, 1994, review of Parallel Time, p. 56.

Nation, April 25, 1994, pp. 562-565.

New York Review of Books, April 6, 1995, pp. 41-46.

New York Times, February 6, 1994; March 21, 1994, pp. C1, C5; March 5, 1995, p. 12.

New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1993, review of Parallel Time, p. 61.

Time, March 7, 1994, p. 68.

Times Literary Supplement, June 10, 1994, pp. 14-15.


Faculty Perspectives, (October 24, 1993), Daniel E. Moerman, review of Parallel Time.

Modern Journalists, (June 2, 2003), author profile.

Prentice Hall Reader, (June 2, 2003).*

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