Posted on 21 May 2021 in bulletin, race, race and markets

Strolling with a Question: Is it Possible to Be a Black Flâneur?

In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, the authors engage in a dialogue about whether it makes sense to talk about non-White flâneurs and about the ways they can envision renewed figures of the flâneur.

Francesca Sobande

Cardiff University

Alice Schoonejans

Université Paris-Dauphine – PSL

Guillaume D. Johnson

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Université Paris-Dauphine

Kevin D. Thomas

Marquette University

Anthony Kwame Harrison

Virginia Tech

Main image: Illustration by Mathilde, commissioned for this article.


While revising our paper reflecting on the organisation of the ISRF-supported Photographic Workshop on Race and Markets in Paris,[1] one reviewer suggested that we draw on the notion of the flâneur. The reviewer recommended we look at the traditional White figure of the flâneur and at how the figure appears in the collective imagination—foregrounding the blatant divide between the freedoms awarded to White bodies in city spaces versus the violent disciplining of Black and Brown people in the same contexts.

The figure of the flâneur occupies a central place in the history of Parisian urban life. Flâner consists of walking alone at an overtly leisurely pace while observing urban sights and places.[2] Commonly translated as “strolling,” flâner tends to be more specific than its English equivalent as it refers to an individual and spatial practice within limited urban sites, namely the interior and exterior marketspaces of the city.[3] Charles Baudelaire, in his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” (first published in 1863), offers a vivid description of the flâneur: 

The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd.[4]

In other words, without financial or emotional expenditure, the flâneur puts himself at the centre of a social world he has created. Walter Benjamin proposes that:

The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity… The intoxication to which the flaneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers.[5]

Reflecting on the archetype of the flâneur, we progressively engaged in a vibrant discussion about whether it made sense to talk about non-White flâneurs, and the ways we could envision renewed figures of the flâneur.

From: Guillaume
To:
Francesca, Alice, Kwame, Kevin
Subject:
“You Can’t be a Black Flâneur”?


I just came across this quote from Teju Cole, written after two Black men got arrested in a Starbucks in April 2018:

This is why I always say you can’t be a black flâneur. Flânerie is for whites. For blacks in white terrain, all spaces are charged. Cafes, restaurants, museums, shops. Your own front door. This is why we are compelled, instead, to practice psychogeography. We wander alert, and pay a heavy psychic toll for that vigilance. Can’t relax, black.[6]

This is an interesting stance because Cole’s book characters have often been described as flâneurs:

Julius, the flâneur-narrator of Teju Cole’s novel Open City, who is a half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatrist living in New York.[7]

Teju Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, and his narrator is both spectator and flâneur.[8]

It’s not surprising that these 21st-century flâneurs are different creatures from their 19th-century predecessors. It is evident that […] Cole [has] been influenced by a multitude of contemporary factors, from the insights of postmodernism and postcolonialism and the ease of travel, to the dislocation of living in a globalized age and the instant gratifications of technology.[9]

Cole himself has been described as a global flâneur:

The images in ‘Blind Spot,’ paired together, form a travelogue of a global flâneur, as Cole strolls through Tivoli, Brooklyn and Brazzaville, his camera capturing glimpses and fleeting impressions.[10]

I would take some distance from Cole’s statement, to avoid any essentialisation of blackness. 

I would note the importance of context. He’s obviously talking about the U.S., but I would argue that in other contexts Black people can be flâneurs. In the post-World War II Parisian context, some African-American artists (notably Richard Wright) could have been described as “Black” flâneurs.[11] Here, a powerful piece in the New Yorker:

[James] Baldwin recalled that when an African joked to him that [Richard] Wright mistook himself for a white man, he had risen to Wright’s defense. But the remark led him to ‘wonder about the uses and hazards of expatriation’:

‘I did not think I was white, either, or I did not think I thought so. But the Africans might think I did, and who could blame them?… When the African said to me, I believe he thinks he’s white, he meant that Richard cared more about his safety and comfort than he cared about the black condition… Richard was able, at last, to live in Paris exactly as he would have lived, had he been a white man, here, in America. This may seem desirable, but I wonder if it is. Richard paid the price such an illusion of safety demands. The price is a turning away from, ignorance of, all of the powers of darkness.’[12]

To some extent, Cole’s broad travel across the world, as documented in his book Blind Spot, seems to make him a (Black) flâneur.

From: Francesca
To:
Guillaume, Alice, Kwame, Kevin
Subject:
Complicating the flâneur at many intersections


What you say, Guillaume, seems to connect to key issues to do with the intersections of race and class which we can address in the paper. Here are some other related sources that might be helpful as part of our writing on this:

Edwin Hill, Black Flânerie, or Wandering while Black in the City of Light:
This quote seems to capture some of what we’ve all been discussing:

For while these black flâneurs cast a lingering gaze onto the fleeting beauty of the post/colonial city, they must also navigate the racialized dynamics of the gaze, i.e. the performative and normative regulation of space through the violent policing of who can look at whom, who can be seen and who remain invisible, who must look down and who cannot look away.[13]

Doreen St. Félix, The Peril of Black Mobility:

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.[14]

Black Outdoors, A Black Flaneur in the ‘Hood:

A Black woman flâneur may have a different experience exploring the city streets than the classic flâneur. Race. Gender. These two words shape how I am perceived on the road. Walking along Yonge Street, the main artery of Toronto, I blend right into the multicultural crowd. It is a different world when away from the main thoroughfares. I stand out. The proverbial hairs on the back on my head invariable rise to attention. On alert for a glance, a comment, a looking over the shoulder. Or a sudden crossing to the other side of the street.[15]

The different experiences of Black people and the social capital that is attributed to them is very much shaped by factors such as class, globalisation and perceptions of so-called “cosmopolitan” Black people who travel and study internationally. In Thick: And Other Essays by Dr Tressie McMillan Cottom, there is a chapter entitled “Black Is Over (Or, Special Black),” which is really great in identifying intra-racial differences in terms of Black people’s access to certain spaces and their (in)ability to move within them relatively freely, and otherwise.[16]

I have been thinking about the recent experience of Chris Cooper while birdwatching in Central Park, New York City.[17] Some people have been quick to list his professional qualifications and education in an effort to call out the racism that he experienced. However, others have rightly pointed out that regardless of their background and socio-economic status, no Black person should have to endure what he did, and the fact that Chris Cooper was profiled and encountered such racism reflects that anti-Black racism cannot be outrun via socio-economic mobility.

I think that by exploring the concept of the flâneur and/or the Black flâneur from an intersectional perspective, we can yield some interesting thoughts and insights regarding how the flâneur is complicated by the intersections of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, colourism and the like.

From: Kevin
To:
Francesca, Guillaume, Alice, Kwame
Subject:
Antiblackness as the default position


Taking an intersectional approach to our discussion of the (Black) flâneur seems really important. That said, I hope we are also able to emphasise the potentiality of race to be totalising.

My experience with “wandering” in and outside of the U.S. places antiblackness in the default position—at first glance I am considered a threat or at minimum out of place within White spaces. It is only when my social status (professor) or my nationality (when outside the U.S.) is made manifest that the antiblack behaviour subsides.

While Black folks with the “right” level of notoriety may be able to leverage it in their pursuit of flânerie, I think such a strategy can only be effective if the “proper” signals are sent and accurately received. And the signal that must be carefully encoded and correctly decoded is that “I am not THAT kind of Black”—I am an artist, intellectual, conservative, or anything else hegemonically aligned or deemed “safe” with Whiteness. But if/when those signals get crossed, the strategy fails and the default of anti-blackness comes roaring back.

From: Guillaume
To:
Kevin, Francesca, Alice, Kwame
Subject:
What makes flânerie different?


I agree 100% with the quotes and experiences you shared, no doubt about this. As pointed out in one of the quotes shared by Francesca:

[flânerie involves] the racialized dynamics of the gaze, i.e. the performative and normative regulation of space through the violent policing of who can look at whom, who can be seen and who remain invisible, who must look down and who cannot look away.[18]

My question, though, is: what differentiates flânerie from other social practices historically racialised as White? 

For instance, what differentiates flânerie from shopping, researching, and skiing? The shopper figure, the researcher figure and the skier figure have also been socially constructed based on race (as well as gender and class).

Black shopping, researching, and skiing also involve the racialised dynamics of the gaze—but I am not sure that someone will claim after a controversy involving shopping, researching, or skiing: “I have always said you can’t be a Black shopper/researcher/skier.” Or if someone tries to say so, they may get into trouble. For instance, Joe Biden had to apologise after he said, during the 2020 election campaign (Linskey and Itkowitz, Seattle Times, 2020):

If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.[19]

If we cannot deny the existence of Black Trump voters, why can we deny the existence of Black flâneurs?

Could we not argue that, similar to other social practices historically racialised as White, [Black] flânerie has the potential to reinforce (e.g. Richard Wright) or challenge White supremacy (the way Black shopping, researching, and skiing may also do)? And then we can work from there to say what would be a “disruptive flâneur.”

From: Kwame
To:
Guillaume, Kevin, Francesca, Alice
Subject:
Practices vs. Embodied way of being in the world


Coming out of a disability studies framework, several years ago when I did a workshop on teaching and stuttering, I learned the difference between referring to myself as a “stutterer” or “someone who stutters.” While people may refer to themselves as shoppers, researchers, or skiers, in truth, these are just practices people engage in. The flâneur, as I understand it, is not a practice but an embodied way of being in the world. So I don’t think you can simply equate the flâneur with the skier. I guess we could talk about “flânerie” as a practice. But even then I see it as a practice that’s rooted in an identity-based disposition. Like “acting White” or, even more to the point, “being White.” Of course, this doesn’t resolve everything you are thinking through, Guillaume. But I think it’s part of the answer.

From: Alice
To:
Kwame, Guillaume, Kevin, Francesca
Subject:
Can the flâneur be disruptive?


I agree with Kwame’s comments. I think the flâneur is more about one’s relationship to reality than the skier, although strolling and skiing are two practices.

Also, I feel like the flâneur is essentially characterised by his feeling of belonging to the crowd. He even feels like he is at the centre of the crowd. I feel like a disruptive flâneur never feels like she completely belongs and is self-aware of the disruption. She knows that she is not invisible because she does not “look” alike. As such, although she may claim to be free, she knows that embodying freedom is an act of disruption. Therefore, I feel like the disruptive flâneur is at odds with the essential traits of the flâneur (not just in the sense that the fictional archetype is not a reality, but in the sense that some traits of the disruptive flâneur are opposite to the essential characteristics of the flâneur). Therefore, I don’t think the disruptive flâneur is really a flâneur, although she may engage in the practice of strolling.

Also, is there such a thing as “flânerie” in poor racialised districts? 

1. When you are a White person born in the 5th district, you don’t stroll in the Seine Saint Denis. It’s telling that the only times I have heard of White people from the centre of Paris going into the Seine Saint Denis, it would be for sociological purposes, not just for being there and observing in a leisurely way.

2. When you are a Black person born in the Seine Saint Denis, you may feel like you belong when you stroll in the Seine Saint Denis, but the flâneur is so closely associated to the “beaux quartiers” that I don’t feel like it would really be easy to identify with the flâneur. What do you think?

From: Kwame
To:
Alice, Guillaume, Kevin, Francesca
Subject:
On Being


These are excellent points, Alice. I really like the point you made about White people only visiting in the Seine Saint Denis for “sociological purposes.” While thinking about the sources you referenced, a few tensions I noticed are, first, nationality, inspired by Baldwin’s comments about Richard Wright getting it wrong in what Guillaume originally mentioned. So African-Americans may be okay in Paris but Black colonial subjects are not. Similarly, there are a lot of accounts of Black internationals being given “honorary White passes” during Jim Crow. Second, we should consider the differences between identities and subcultures. What identities can we choose and what identities are imposed on us? I would say race and gender tend to be the latter. Social class is more or less imposed but people can also learn how to temporarily conceal it. 

Finally, I want to share a wonderful piece by Ross Gay.[20] I heard him recite it on the National Public Radio podcast On Being a few weeks ago and immediately ordered his book. I think it adds a capitalist, market-based dimension to some of the things we are talking about. I cannot believe I didn’t think to mention this earlier. I think it’s notable that when I looked up the piece, I found it in the Paris Review.

From: Guillaume
To:
Kwame, Alice, Kevin, Francesca
Subject:
No Loitering—Violators will be prosecuted


Ross Gay’s piece is indeed very nice:

It occurs to me that laughter and loitering are kissing cousins, as both bespeak an interruption of production and consumption.[21]

And, there may be my missing piece… If flâner is associated with White bodies, loitering is associated with Black and Brown bodies…. The former is praised whereas the latter is criminalised. 

What I liked with flâner was that it gives a sense of the “individualised right to the city.” And so, inhabiting a “flâneur position” could be a (deliberate or not) strategy for some Black artists to inhabit spaces racialised as White. I am thinking notably of the Smarteez of South Africa:

The Smarteez are a four-strong DIY design collective. They epitomise the possibilities that are open to South Africa’s young post apartheid generation. Soweto’s style tribe refuse to be defined by their roots or race, are bold and original in their approach to fashion, and have turned the art of looking good into a fully fledged fashion label and scene.[22]

The Smarteez are a small youth group of fashion designers who dress in bright and mismatching colours and patterns to make their statement. Their belief is that they’re born to be free and so they will express that by wearing what they want and drawing attention to themselves in the meantime. Their style may be a bit too vibrant for some, but it makes the Smarteez instantly recognisable when wandering around Soweto—and they even won an award for the most stylish subculture in Johannesburg![23]

That said, maybe flâner cannot/shouldn’t be “appropriated”… But should we give loitering a chance instead? 

From: Francesca
To:
Guillaume, Kwame, Alice, Kevin
Subject:
Offering fragile alternative positions


Although certain Black people and racialised people may experience and have access to degrees of “privilege,” power, and socio-economic advantage related to class and the like, which means that they may feel/be able to move in ways that can resemble flânerie… ultimately, such an ability to do so is fragile and highly constrained and context dependent. 

Therefore, I find the concept of the “Black flâneur” a useful one to think about but I feel that it is even more mythic and fictive than the original concept of the flâneur, as the “Black flaneur” experiences such significant risks and social disciplining which leaves me questioning whether they can ever fully occupy this transient position of the “flâneur.”

I am also now reflecting on the great Black walking tour in Paris that my group went on. Interestingly, at one point a couple of tourists joined us. I think that at least one of them was Black and I believe that they ended up paying Kévi [one of the tour guides], unprompted. Perhaps such a moment may speak to the concept of the “Black flâneur,” as clearly there was a level of comfort and ease that meant both tourists felt that they could join our group without their presence being policed by the group itself. Then again, such a moment may have been less about the tourists feeling comfortable in the city of Paris itself, and may have been more about a fleeting moment of Black diasporic visibility and connection, given that our group was predominantly Black (I think).

To acknowledge racialised flânerie is to acknowledge the ways in which modes of reading the city can be expanded to account for alternative visual literacies linked to distinct subjective, and sometimes fragile, positions.


The illustrations included in this article were made by Mathilde (see https://lavieacroquer.wordpress.com/).


Footnotes

[1] Francesca Sobande, Alice Schoonejans, Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas & Anthony Kwame Harrison, “Enacting anti-racist visualities through photo-dialogues on race in Paris,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 40, no. 2 (2021): 165–179, 165–166. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-01-2020-0019.

[2] Rob Shields, “Fancy footwork: Walter Benjamin’s notes on flânerie,” in K. Tester (ed.),The Flâneur (London 1994: Routledge): 61–80.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (New York 1972: Viking), 399.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London 1983: Verso), 55.

[6] Teju Cole, “The Starbucks thing hit me harder than expected,” Facebook, 18 April 2018, https://m.facebook.com/walkingartistsnetwork/posts/1066870813450882/.

[7] Pankaj Mishra, “Open City,” Financial Times, 22 July 2011, https://www.ft.com/content/8fc671da-b129-11e0-a43e-00144feab49a.

[8] James Wood, “The Arrival of Enigmas,” The New Yorker, 28 February 2011, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/28/the-arrival-of-enigmas.

[9] Albert Wu & Michelle Kuo, “Imperfect Strollers,” LA Review of Books, 2 February 2013, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/imperfect-strollers-teju-cole-ben-lerner-w-g-sebald-and-the-alienated-cosmopolitan/.

[10] Colin Dickey, “Teju Cole uses his camera and his writing to pry open the cities he visits in ‘Blind Spot,’” LA Times, 15 June 2017, https://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-teju-cole-20170615-htmlstory.html.

[11] See Tyler Stovall, “The fire this time: black American expatriates and the Algerian War,” Yale French Studies 98 (2000): 182–200.

[12] Adam Shatz, “‘How Does It Feel To Be a White Man?’: William Gardner Smith’s Exile in Paris,” The New Yorker, 11 August 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-does-it-feel-to-be-a-white-man-william-gardner-smiths-exile-in-paris.

[13] Edwin Hill, “Black Flânerie, or Wandering while Black in the City of Light,” https://frit.osu.edu/interdisciplinarity-directions/hill.

[14] Doreen St. Félix,“The Peril of Black Mobility,” Good, 29 March 2016, https://www.good.is/features/issue-36-flanerie.

[15] Black Outdoors, “A Black Flaneur in the ‘Hood,” https://blackoutdoors.wordpress.com/2019/03/29/a-black-flaneur-in-the-hood/.

[16] Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (New York, 2019: The New Press).

[17] See Joanna Walters, “Video of white woman calling police on black man in Central Park draws outrage,” The Guardian, 26 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/26/central-park-new-york-white-woman-black-birdwatcher.

[18] Edwin Hill, “Black Flânerie, or Wandering while Black in the City of Light.”

[19] Annie Linskey & Colby Itkowitz, “Black Trump voters ‘ain’t black,’ Biden says, later apologizing,” The Seattle Times, 22 May 2020, https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/biden-says-black-voters-who-arent-already-supporting-him-aint-black/.

[20] Ross Gay, “Loitering Is Delightful,” The Paris Review, 11 February 2019, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/02/11/loitering-is-delightful/.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Guardian Fashion, “Street fashion in South Africa,” The Guardian, 2 November 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2011/nov/02/south-african-fashion.

[23] House of York, “South Africans and their Subcultures,” 26 September 2014, https://www.houseofyork.co.za/article/south-africans-and-their-subcultures.


Francesca Sobande

Dr. Francesca Sobande is a lecturer in digital media studies and director of the BA Media, Journalism and Culture programme at Cardiff University. Francesca’s work focuses on the media experiences of Black women in Britain, digital remix culture, creative work, brand “woke-washing,” and the politics of popular culture and power. She is author of The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and her research has been published in international journals including European Journal of Cultural Studies, European Journal of Marketing, Marketing Theory, Television & New Media, Consumption Markets & Culture, and Communication, Culture & Critique.

Alice Schoonejans

Alice Schoonejans is a PhD Student in Organizational Studies at the Université Paris-Dauphine. After studying the World Bank’s responses to Indigenous Peoples’ complaints during her Master, she currently focuses on the World Bank environmental and social framework. Her research interests include sustainable development, human rights and international organizations. Alice studied international development as well as political and ethical philosophy at Paris-Sorbonne University and Paris-Dauphine University.

Guillaume D. Johnson

Guillaume D. Johnson is a tenured research scholar in management and marketing at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) based at the Université Paris-Dauphine. His research focuses on the sociopolitical dynamics of multicultural marketing with a special emphasis on race. He has explored these issues in France, South Africa, and the United States, and his work has been published in Consumption Markets & Culture, Journal of Public Policy & MarketingJournal of Advertising and Journal of Business Research among others. He serves on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Advertising. He is co-founder and co-organizer of the Race in the Marketplace (RIM) Research Network and co-edited Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Prior to joining the CNRS, he held academic positions in South Africa and China.

Kevin D. Thomas

Kevin D. Thomas is an educator, analyst, and activist scholar. He currently serves as the Assistant Professor of Multicultural Branding at Marquette University. Dr. Thomas specialises in using policy-relevant and community participatory action research methods to critically examine the relationship between marketing, consumption practices, and notions of self and community. He is particularly interested in how identity markers such as, race, gender, class, and sexuality are represented in marketing and experienced in the marketplace. His research is informed by 10 years of industry experience as a market researcher. Previous work from Dr. Thomas is featured in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Journal of Advertising, Consumption Markets & Culture, among others. He is co-editor of Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Palgrave Macmillan 2019). Dr. Thomas is co- founder of Food for Black Thought, the Black Media Council, and the Race in the Marketplace Research Network.

Anthony Kwame Harrison

Anthony Kwame Harrison is a professor in the Department of Sociology with a half-time appointment in the Africana Studies Program at Virginia Tech. He also holds the title of Edward S. Diggs Professor in Humanities. His research and teaching generally explore issues surrounding racial identification, hip hop music, qualitative research methodologies, and social space.  An interdisciplinary scholar, Dr. Harrison has presented his work at conferences focusing on anthropology, sociology, Black studies, popular music studies, philosophy, marketing, qualitative inquiry, and higher education pedagogy.  He is Past President of the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association and on the Advisory Board of the Race and the Marketplace (RIM) Network.