Last summer, I rushed to Amazon to pre-order Lauren Elkin’s book on the flâneuse, or the modern woman who shows up in unexpected places, usually cities. I rarely pre-order books. When I do, I know something deep inside of me has been hit.
As I read her book a year later, I wondered how African American women fit into her story. They were moving, too, and possibly beside women like George Sand and Virginia Wolff and certainly, Sophie Calle. Some did so even before the era of slavery ended in the United States. That they did complicates Elkin’s observations. To be clearer, if a woman walking alone well into the twentieth century is suspect, a black woman walking alone is doubly suspect. But move she did. I think, for example, of the enslaved, among them Sally Hemings who arrived in Paris as barely a teenager in 1787. She was summoned to work for Thomas Jefferson, her master. As Annette Gordon-Reed has written, even though she could not move as freely as her brother, who had earlier arrived and was working as a chef, she almost surely took short walks past the statue of King Louis XV and into the city’s many fashionable areas. These walks may shifted something huge inside of her so much so that although she returned to the States, she negotiated the future freedom of her children with her master.
There are other enslaved women and girls of color who didn’t move as far, but still took chances.
Judith Kelleher Schafer has written about the shifting meaning of freedom in New Orleans. There, Delphine, another enslaved woman, was put on trial in an attempt to prove that she did not deserve to be free. As I write in Remember Me to Miss Louisa, witnesses characterized her as a woman who frequented one apothecary so often that men patronizing this shop were well acquainted with her. Some of the male patrons teased her and her resistance via threats and even laughter proved so outraging, the proprietor threatened to report her behavior to local authorities. Her master reminded the proprietor of his patrons’ participation in her ordeal. This story was retold in court. Delphine lost the case. How much had she walked around New Orleans, disrupting others’ expectations of her? And perhaps there had been others.
I also write in this book about Lucile Tucker, an enslaved woman who told her master to send this greeting almost certainly to his wife: “Remember me to Miss Louisa.” In the same 1847 letter, she requested her master send freedom. She said it was something she deserved and that he ought to arrange while sparing her the expense of a trip to New Orleans. How well did she know that city? Who had permitted her to walk through it, possibly getting to know it very well?
The mover of them all almost certainly was Harriet Tubman. Grandma Moses had done more than slip away into the dark of night through wooded areas and inland waterways, trying to be free or free others. When she first entered Philadelphia as a free woman, she said she felt like a “stranger in a strange land.” That land, we might remember, was a city, and one that had been the place where the country’s founding fathers met until dwellings were constructed on a brackish river that eventually ran through Washington D.C..
As I think now about Tubman, I wonder if the city is essential to the black flaneuse. Given the deep ties some women had to rural spaces, could they have felt initially powerful while moving off the grid? Stephanie Camp described the behavior of an enslaved woman named California who was getting on the last nerve of a plantation manager. She would not remove amalgamation prints from her cabin walls. She’d likely received them from her husband who was able to travel off the plantation as he worked on a dock. He likely brought them to her. Although she could not read, she could study these illustrations and knew that they were promoting a world out there, somewhere.
Her awareness made the plantation manager angry. He wrote not one, but two letters to her master, who lived away from the plantation. He wanted to share how California was belligerent. She was determined to have things her way – even in the small confines of her cabin although Camp told us, too, about the black women who borrowed their white mistresses’ dresses and danced until the wee hours of the morning in nearby wooded areas.
All of these individuals – ones enabled to move by the unexpected individual, a white master who permitted some leeway – provide new ways to think about ones who appear in imagined works, ones who move more deliberately. I think again of the now-cancelled “Underground,” a television drama in which, Stine, a sassy enslaved woman, was literally on the run as was her daughter Rosalee – the latter while carrying a baby. Never idle wanderers, they moved through the countryside and the city, searching for their freedom. Some are still searching.