Flâneur, the political act of Walking While Black
I went for a long walk on Sunday. My husband took the kids hiking in the mountains, and I was afforded with six (read that, SIX!) hours to do with what I wished. I determined not to work on a Sunday, and instead to go for a long stroll.
I walked from our house in East Vancouver, past industrial warehouses and production facilities, toward the “historic” neighborhood of Strathcona, passing signs denoting black Canadians of import who lived along those streets. I walked through Chinatown, loping through Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s garden, into the scraggly and uncertain boundary between the Downtown East Side and Gastown. I walked through Pidgeon Park’s marketplace, Sunday hagglers bartering over used shoes and other sundries for trade, police cars hovering to contain the thronging crowd. I make the grittiness of it sound romantic because, for this mother of two, it was: a few hours to return to my body, indulging my senses as the sun soaked into my skin.
Cut to a few hours later, after the chaos of dinner/bath/children’s bedtimes and calm relief at getting through the day towards evening. I should stay away from electronics at night, but I was watching music videos, a pastime that stems from VH1 and the days when MTV was about moving art set to music.
Fingers tapped my screen, leading me to Nosetalgia by Pusha T and Kendrick Lamar. I know this video is over a year old, but I had never seen it before. Please take the time to watch what I think is one of the most haunting pieces of stylized cinéma vérité, and my new favorite music video.
Never mind the pure artistry of this video - the single long take, the sauntering beat, the poet-virtuosity of the lyrics and their delivery. By its end, you also realize you have been watching a radical act. Two black men, walking in the street, talking to the world without incident. Two black men speaking fiercely with the world to listen, asserting their individuality and their humanity, telling stories embattled by lived experience, violent and cracked-out on those same Compton streets. Pusha T’s voice growing in crescendo to “dying, dead, YAH.” Kendrick Lamar’s verse cozied up in Bill Cosby-like affectation. It is a troubling song that pulls at you. I could watch it, their bodies wandering through abandoned streets, all day.
I do not trust myself to watch it, however. I do not trust myself to do so without anger, sadness, grief, tiredness, and any other manner of coping that I, and others like me, have had to feel while wading through life. The video is crippling for its stark realness: straight talk of the dope game, running mules, and destroying lives. Kendrick watching his father’s addiction, countered and endured through artistic escape.
The video is haunting, too, for what is not there. A spectral absence presents itself in the lyrics, its visceral poetry pouring from lips, where the story runs parallel to other common narratives: the police threatening arrest, the mother crying in the street, the neighbors staring on in horror. Missing is the hope and honor, the frailty and vulnerability of coming to terms with a society who hears only a single story and values you not enough. It despairs me to think on this, plus images like the one below - what does this young boy consider when he thinks of the possible arcs of his life?
There has been much written about the role of the flâneur in modern life, from Baudelaire's intellectually aware observer, to Benjamin's capitalist consumer strolling the Parisian arcades. I do not want to write an exposition on those Gallic iterations. What of its present-day incarnation: the freedom to walk without fear of incarceration.
A while back, I bought a book regarding walking as a performance of racial and sexual freedom. Unfortunately, I have not yet made the time to read it. But, as walks have been on my mind (and the minds of many this week, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday), I will soon visit the pages of that book. It is a Long Walk to Freedom, and the black flâneur is a both a quixotic and radical agent.