A Tale of Two City Walks: The Act of Walking
2020 has been a big year for walking, from the Women’s March in January to protests over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Whole families ventured out for exercise in response to the COVID lockdown. People are on the streets. Artist and Culture Couch Producer Susan Byrnes checks in with Rodney Veal, host of the Art Show on Dayton’s Think TV, who’s found that since the pandemic hit, the act of walking itself has, for him, taken on new meaning.
Author Rebecca Solnit writes about processions and protests in her book Wanderlust, A History of Walking. “The street is democracy’s greatest arena,“ she says, ”the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power.” This made me think of some recent posts on social media by Rodney Veal. He’s a choreographer, visual artist, community activist and educator, a real staple of the Dayton arts community.
“My walks pretty much encompass walking the streets of Dayton. They started, honestly, the day after the governor called for the lockdown, just to keep my sanity in the midst of this because I’ll be honest with you, it was a shock to the system.”
He’s been posting his daily walks live on Facebook.
Rodney’s daily journey is also a journal for him – he posts striking photos of things he finds on the streets, like a single pink stiletto shoe with a rock and a pen in it, or a spectacularly lit bag of Doritos, abandoned in front of the courthouse. And every morning at the end of the walk he livestreams a monologue. What people might not know about Rodney is that he’s got a degree in political science and has a lot to say about politics, education, and the arts. He’s indignant about politicians voting to cut public art and public media.
”…things that inform, things that inspire, things that create. The place that EVERY human being wants to be at. Destroy it first, so you don’t give them the outlet. Because a lot of times the arts speak truth to power,” he says in one video.
Social media is a great virtual soap box, and people who follow Rodney comment in real time, which he loves. But there’s another reason he started posting live.
“It’s a good documentation in case anything happened to me, at the end of the walk, then someone could say 'Hey, I saw Rodney on Facebook live and something went down. Go find him.' And I always say where I’m at, if something happens, I’m near Sinclair heading back to Wright-Dunbar. I’m like, for safety reasons, I’m not gonna lie, that was another factor. I’m out here by myself and anything could happen.
As an African American man, this walk, by myself, the act of walking -and this is pre-George Floyd, it was all the other things that happened before - it was already a sense of, you need to be aware of your surroundings and aware of your place in it, because now we’re in a situation where we have individuals who have such an adverse reaction to the George Floyd incident and this reckoning that is happening in our society that their reaction is 'No! Therefore any manifestation of you represents trying to force me to change, let me shoot you.' That’s real. That’s a very real thing and my mom, who’s so even-keeled said, 'Are you carrying your ID with you?' I was like, you think about…oh…wow…wow…WOW.”
And after the murder of George Floyd, he always carries his ID. His walks and his voice have become even more important to him.
“I speak up now really even more so as an African American man because there are so few of us in the realm of the world to talk about our experiences in the world that people can relate to and understand how big it is. Even, I always look at it this way, that even a level of success will not protect me. Being an artist will not protect me. Being an intellectual won’t protect me. Having a master’s degree, even if I had a Ph.D., will not save me. When in any other situation these things, attributes of success would elevate you to a place where you could feel safe, and I have come to the realization that it can’t and it won’t.”
Rodney’s plan is to keep walking, and to keep bringing people along with him.
Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and supported by WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.