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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Stroller or threat? It depends on what you look like.

A topography invents a literary type. Out of the modern Western city comes the flâneur and his complicated behavior, flânerie. When the French poet Charles Baudelaire drew up the flâneur’s proclivities, the character was as much a result of Enlightenment thought as civil engineering. He observed indiscriminately, both because such was the call of scientism and because the mall’s windows were wide and clear. He walked aimlessly, because rationalism demanded an understanding of the world, and because parallel boulevards spared his puny body from traffic. He was French and white. He could always observe because no one was observing him, his purposelessness safeguarded by the warming city streetlights.

Who is the black flâneur? He or she is a loiterer. The roving that permits white fancy, white whim, white walking in our modern American cities, when observed in us and our children, reads criminal. Some black wandering the public has grieved: Michael Brown in the middle of the street, Sandra Bland on a road trip, Tamir Rice in the park, Akai Gurley up the stairs. In America’s cities, black bodies stand under many lights, and the effect is not liberating warmth, but that paranoia of surveillance. There are streets you know not to walk down for the particular threats that are built in. It’s maddening—incorporating so many fields of vision, planning so many sophisticated routes. We thought the internet as a new metropolis might not cramp one’s range of motion the way cities do, but we find the same walls erected virtually. The desire to write for black freedom more often turns into a mandate to write for white anxiety. Knowing they’re watching can foster self-policing.

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