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Essay — Finding the experience of a woman flaneur

Joy Priest, a Southern writer, explains why, during her walks, she channels a 19th century literary figure known as the flaneur, who spent much of his time touring venues on foot

In January, espnW’s weekly essay series will focus on moving forward.

At 15 I bought my first car, a maroon-red 1988 Cutlass Supreme Classic, and at this early age, I had my first taste of freedom and mobility.

For a Southern black girl, this was important. Especially for one who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, a town without a sufficient public transportation system and no train leading out of the place she was trapped in. The car was stolen my senior year of high school, but that first investment in mobility led to successive moves forward: I would move 70 miles away to college, and later, 13 hours away to the greater New York City area.

I didn’t have a car in those spaces.

I have not owned a car for 10 years. As a result, one of the most resourceful activities for me is walking. It is my own two feet that gets me around; I rely on these two tiny spells for freedom of travel.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire introduced a literary figure known as the flaneur, who spent much of his time touring urban venues on foot, strolling around and cogitating. It is important to note that this character is always a man. In the 19th century, I suppose women didn’t walk around as a social activity. They certainly weren’t caught writing about it. This social code seems to persist in some places.

I’ve thought much about what the experience of a woman flaneur would be like, especially since I have been one now for nearly all of my adult life. Mostly in the ever-gallant South, where women, particularly black women, face exceptional challenges to their health and corporeal agency:

“I got a friend that sells cars!” a man living adjacent to my weekday bus stop yelled out to me one morning. “Don’t no woman need to be walking or catching no bus.”

I haven’t walked long distances regularly since moving from the North five months ago to Columbia, South Carolina, where I live now. Walking, as it was in New York, isn’t a major mode of transportation here. There are no sidewalks in a vast number of places, and in the beginning, I felt foolish under the eye of passing motorists. Or, I felt uneasy beneath the rebel flags staked from the top of neighboring houses. No one walks here as a way of getting to their destinations, it appears, except for itinerants.

Certainly, not lone women.

At least, this is what the man next door to the bus stop attempted to convince me of on another morning as he approached me, closer this time, at my bus stop: “This is why I voted for Trump, sistah,” he declared in attempted black camaraderie.

He went on, running down the script of recent popular discourse: “He’s a business man, he’s gonna turn things around for our economy, make us great again. You won’t be out here walking for long.”

Recently, on my 28th birthday, I wanted to think in the clear, clear air, so I walked outdoors onto my front porch, then out into my neighborhood and on some more, and I kept on walking until I’d walked 5 miles. The wind that day was relentless in its beating, but as I turned a sharp curve, the small tornadoes of dropped leaf and loose brush flying into me began to swirl around me instead, as if I were controlling the weather.

For so long, I’ve survived by simply keeping my mind on where I’m going, thinking onward. “I don’t want a ride.” I wanted to say to him. “I’m moving forward on my own magic.

Joy Priest is a writer living in Columbia, South Carolina. She has received scholarships and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Joy has twice been a finalist for the Rita Dove International Poetry Award, and her work can be found in Best New Poets 2014 and The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop.

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