Staples, Brent 1951–
Brent Staples 1951–
Journalist, essayist, educator
With his work as an editorial writer for the New York Times and his memoir Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, Brent Staples hopes to shatter some longstanding stereotypes about what it means to be an African-American. The holder of one of journalism’s most prestigious jobs, Staples has succeeded in a mostly-white profession not because he is black but because he can write well. His editorials range across the entire spectrum of American life, and his critically acclaimed memoir was inspired by such eminent white authors as novelists Frank Conroy and Saul Bellow, and white journalist Russell Baker. As an author Staples is crusading to shatter the myth that the “black experience” is defined by poverty, violence, and crime. “I despise the expression [black experience],” Staples told the Knight Ridder wire service. “There is no such thing. Black people’s lives in this country are too varied to be reduced to a single term.”
One of those richly varied lives belongs to Brent Staples. He emerged from a blue collar childhood to attend college at Widener University and graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate degree in psychology. Rejecting the standard academic career, he became a journalist, essayist, and book reviewer with one of the nation’s best known newspapers, the New York Times. Addressing the issue of race as it affects his writing, Staples told the Knight Ridder wire service: “Being black enriches my experience; it doesn’t define me… I’m writing about universal themes—family and leaving home and developing your own identity—which all Americans can enjoy and understand.”
Before Staples was born his parents moved from rural Virginia to Chester, Pennsylvania, then a prosperous small city with a huge shipbuilding industry. The oldest son of nine children, Staples was born in 1951, and can easily remember his family’s comfortable existence in Chester during the city’s last period of productivity. Staples’s father drove a truck and earned sufficient wages to support the family. The family fortunes dwindled, however, as his father began drinking heavily. Huge responsibilities were heaped on Brent as an oldest son, and with a mixture of resentment and frustration, he began looking beyond his home for emotional support and intellectual stimulation.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis wrote that Staples “miraculously found a way to stabilize his own existence as nearly everyone and everything around him
Bom in 1951 in Chester, PA; son of Melvin (a truck driver) and Geneva (Patterson) Staples. Education: Widener University, B.A., 1973; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1977.
Adjunct professor of psychology at colleges in Pennsylvania and Chicago, 1977-81; reporter, Chicago Sun-Ttmes, 1982-83; editorial writer, New York Times, 1 983—.
Selected awards: Danforth fellowship for graduate study at University of Chicago.
Addresses: Office—New York Times, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.
was crumbling. He turned inward, distancing himself from his dysfunctional family. Although his love for his family never wavered, he wisely chose to observe it from a safe distance, almost with the detachment of an outsider. He struggled to understand the forces that persuaded his loved ones to accept so easily the poverty and despair that imprisoned them.”
As the 1960s progressed, Chester’s many factories began to close down, eventually laying off more than 40,000 people. The Staples family found itself literally on the run from house to house, hoping to escape from landlords and creditors. By his own estimation, Staples moved eight times before he reached seventh grade. He was often disoriented and confused, and his schooling was interrupted.
Staples never even dreamed of going to college. His family had no money for tuition, his grades were average, and he had taken only a few high-level academic courses in high school. He did not even take the SAT test as a senior; he expected to go right to work after graduation. Then he met a black college professor, Eugene Sparrow, who encouraged him to apply to the Philadelphia Military College/Penn Morton College for a summer of college-preparation classes. Staples was accepted into a program called Project Prepare that enabled him to improve his academic skills in an atmosphere of strict discipline. In the fall he was accepted as a full-time student.
When Staples was a junior the Philadelphia Military College became Widener University at the urging of a wealthy trustee. Staples earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Widener in 1973. He also received a Danforth fellowship for graduate study at the University of Chicago. Moving west for further education, the young scholar effectively separated himself from his working-class family and the community where he had grown up. He would never again return to Chester for any significant period of time.
Staples found that subtle forms of racism were evident everywhere as he worked toward his Ph.D. A tall, broad-shouldered man, he noticed that white people in his neighborhood would often cross the street to avoid passing him, especially at night. That he was assumed to be dangerous merely because he is black offended him. After seething about it for some months, Staples turned the sidewalk experience into a game. He actually tried to scare white pedestrians in a process he called “scatter the pigeons.” The racism he encountered in his academic department was dispelled by his doctoral research. His thesis was on the mathematics of decision-making, and it earned him a Ph.D. in 1977.
For a time in the late 1970s, Staples supported himself by teaching. He even spent a summer in Chester, as a visiting professor at his alma mater, Widener. He had been keeping a journal for years, and he began selling some pieces of writing on a free-lance basis. He soon discovered that he could make a better living as a writer than as a teacher. The early 1980s brought a job as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. When that newspaper was bought by tabloid magnate Rupert Murdoch, Staples looked elsewhere for work and found a position with the New York Times. Although he began at the Times as a general assignment reporter, he soon became a reviewer and editorial writer. Today he serves on the newspaper’s editorial board and writes regularly for the Commentary section.
In 1994 Staples released his first full-length book, Parailel Time: Growing Up in Black and White. The book is a memoir about his youth in Chester and his progress through college and graduate school. Although Staples claimed in Publishers Weekly that the work is “an American story, about the strains between the individual and the family,” a shadow of violence and social deterioration hangs over the book as well. Staples begins and ends Parallel Time with chapters about his brother’s drugrelated murder in Virginia. The brutal slaying was pivotal for Staples because it forced him to contemplate how his own life had diverged from those of his siblings. He wondered where families end and the self begins, what parts of their pasts mold people and what parts constrain them. He also came to terms with the fact that his brother was solely responsible for his untimely death.
Claude Lewis writes of Parallel Time: “One of the reasons that Staples’s book is so powerful is his insistence on facing complex and unflattering portraits of his family members as they existed, instead of as he might have wanted them to be. It is Brent Staples’s terrifying honesty that propels this book to its conclusion.” Lewis also notes: “The story is delivered with warmth and affection but not a hint of sentimentality. The words are searing and painful, probing and direct. The story evolves masterfully, and the reader finds comfort in the realization that he is in the hands of an extraordinary storyteller who offers the unvarnished truth about his family and the distant relationships between blacks and whites.”
Parallel Time was released during Black History Month in 1994 and was automatically lumped in with other “black books” by reviewers in both newspapers and magazines. Newsweek contributor James N. Baker claimed: “As a memoir of growing up black in America, this book may not rank with the autobiographical works of Richard Wright or Lorraine Hansberry, but Staples has made an eloquent contribution to that same writerly tradition.” For his part, Staples lamented the whole idea that his memoir was simply another account of the “black experience.” In a Knight Ridder wire story, the author is quoted as saying: “Black History Month is a ghetto, and as an American who has written an American book, I resent that. This is not one of those up-from-slavery books. It’s an account of a worldly education.”
Staples’s intentions aside, Parallel Time was greeted by generally enthusiastic reviews by fellow journalists. Time correspondent Jack E. White noted that the work “provides a soul-searing account of [Staples’s] uneasy journey from the segregated world of blacks to the token-integrated fringe of the white world [and] an unsettling account of the human consequences of an American tragedy: the widening division between blacks and whites during the turbulent aftermath of the civil rights movement.” Lewis concluded that Parallel Time is “a powerful, personal, and persuasive memoir that teaches us that the human spirit is sometimes stronger than anything that can happen to it.”
Staples told the Knight Ridder wire service: “All of us in this country have more in common than we have differences. Our skin color may not be the same, but we’re the same people, the same biological unit… When the news, entertainment, and publishing industries embark on a ‘black story,’ they often focus, with a kind of perverse romanticism, on the swaggering urban criminal.” Brent Staples offers his own life and work as a counterpoint to that romantic stereotype of the deprived and bitter black person. “I am not a symbol,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am a real, flesh-and-blood man who can do certain things. If you want to engage me and find out how to do those things, I will deal with you, but first you have to have some context [in which] to do it.” As for his success in the realms of journalism and nonfiction writing, McCall admitted that a healthy ego has served him well. “In journalism, they say, ‘Oh, Brent Staples, he’s a great writer, but he’s a little bigheaded,”’ Staples told the Knight Ridder wire service. “Well, I tell them all that without chutzpa, you don’t get from the street corners of Chester to the editorial board of the New York Times. You’ve got to dance with what brought you here. You don’t get this far being demure and cute.”
Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, Pantheon, 1994.
Newsweek, March 14, 1994.
New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, p. 1.
New York Times Magazine, February 6, 1994, p. 24.
Philadelphia Daily News, February 15, 1994, p. 32.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1994, p. D-2.
Publishers Weekly, January 3, 1994, p. 37.
San Jose Mercury News, March 13, 1994, p. 19.
Time, March 7, 1994, p. 68.
Additional information for this profile was taken from Knight Ridder wire service stories, March 9, 1994, and March 16, 1994.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Staples, Brent 1951–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/staples-brent-1951
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