For any Yale student who has taken English 120, chances are he or she has come across Brent Staples and his popular essay “Black Men and Public Space.”
Thursday afternoon, Staples —an author and editorial writer for the New York Times — spoke to a group of about 50 people about issues of race and writing at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea titled “Neither White Nor Black: The Secret History of Mixed-Race America,” sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.
Staples, who came from a small, segregated working-class town, recalled the difficulties he faced on his path to become a journalist. He said he was only the sixth black person to serve on the Times’ editorial board.
“Many of you are so young, it is difficult for you to know what race once meant,” Staples said.
During the talk, he approached tough racial issues, raising questions about the complexities of mixed racial identity. Staples said he himself is only “50 percent sub-Saharan African.” Pointing directly at a white audience member, Staples said, “I’m as white as you.”
He continued to challenge the underpinnings of race in a society where many people are not, as he said, just black or white.
“The very construction of race is a bigoted and racist idea,” he said.
This theory, Staples said, will be discussed in his forthcoming book, a history of mixed-race identity examining the lives of “lightly colored whites who abandoned their black identity to live as white.”
Staples provided one example of a mixed race story by citing the history of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s alleged lover.
“If you’re going to grapple with history at all, you have to look at the secret history of race in America,” he said.
Discussing the future of race relations in the United States, Staples reiterated that, despite the election of President Obama, there is still work to be done. He pointed out the potential downside: People might assume the problems are all solved.
“Every incremental progress in civil rights is followed by backlash,” he said.
Nonetheless, Staples was confident: “I predict that one day you will get your census form and there will be no race question.”
In response to Tuesday’s inauguration, Staples rated President Obama’s address “quite good” and “certainly better than Lincoln’s first inaugural speech.” But, he said, Obama’s election might have been less about race than about “the restoration of the public value of intellect.”
Later asked about how he wrote “Black Men and Public Space,” which was originally published 23 years ago in Ms. magazine under the title “Just Walk On By,” Staples offered advice to aspiring writers in the crowd.
“Just sit down and write. Whatever moves you. Whatever is in your mind,” he said. “Writing is a way of figuring out what is happening to you, of thinking out loud.”
Five audience members interviewed said they were impressed by Staples’ knowledge about America’s racial history.
“It was phenomenal,” Bradley Pough ’12 said. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone as well read, who can back up his points with specific historic anecdotes and take questions from such a wide range of subjects so eloquently.”
Another audience member, Margaret Brooks, who is an Ezra Stiles fellow, remarked that Staples shared an sense of history a younger generation might not fully grasp.
“You young people just don’t know,” she said.
Staples is working on a book to be published within the next three years.