Writer will explore “sensual world”

By Robert Katz

Brent Staples, New York Times editorial board writer and University alum, will present a lecture titled “Digital Communication and the Death of the Sensual World” today at 3:30 p.m. in Ida Noyes Hall.

Staples wrote a memoir in 1994 entitled Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White, an exploration of the sharply divergent lives led by the author and his other siblings. While Staples went on to pursue a successful academic and professional career in journalism, his brother met an early, violent death on the streets. Kirkus Reviews called it “a provocative coming-of-age memoir that candidly addresses questions of loyalty to family, class, and race.”

Staples wrote in an e-mail interview that his memoir “was not a popular book at the University. Many people there never spoke to me again.”

The memoir won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, previously won by novelists Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Staples is currently working on a history of the balck press.

After receiving a master’s degree in psychology in 1976 from the U of C, he won a Danforth Fellowship for advanced study for his doctorate in psychology in 1982.

“Chicago’s ‘conservatism’ did not deter me, nor was I put off by it,” Staples said. “I disagreed with much of what might be called conservative doctrine.  But I also respected the intellectual discipline the conservatives showed as they moved through the world. Discipline of thought is profoundly important.

“It taught me that history is overwhelmingly important when it comes to civic and political discourse. As one historian friend puts it: ‘The only real subject is history. Everything else is training,'” he said.

Staples said he came to the U of C largely as a way to escape the sameness of his life in Chester, PA. “I chose Chicago the way someone else might choose a taxicab,” he added.

Since 1990, Staples has served on the editorial board of The New York Times. Prior to that appointment, he was assistant metropolitan editor from 1987 to 1990, and editor of [The Book Review] from1985 to 1987. He began his journalistic career as a freelance reporter and jazz and literature critic. His first newspaper appointment was as a staff reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times from 1983 to 1985.

Staples did his undergraduate work at PMC Colleges, now called Widener University, where he eared a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science in 1973. The school is located in his hometown 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

According to his book, he entered school “off the street with middling grades and without college boards—as part of Project Prepare, a program for black students, many of whom did not meet the ordinary admissions requirements.

“Project Prepare was run like boot camp. We slept in the dormitory, went to class in the dormitory and were forbidden to leave it at night,” writes Staples.

He graduated cum laude from PMC, narrowly missing the magna cum laude distinction, and was invited to join the Alpha Chi National Scholarship Honor Society. Staples’ dissertation at Chicago was called “Probabilistic Reasoning; A Behavioral Example.” The paper compared the decision-making process of humans to mechanically made decisions through probability calculus.

While at the University, Staples will also participate in a brownbag lunch at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, where he will present a lecture entitled, “Hidden People, Secret Stories: Mixed Race Identity and the Flight From Blackness.”