88. Garnette Cadogan, “Walking While Black”

by breavman99


(image source: https://mlkscholars.mit.edu/event/garnette-cadogan-how-walking-while-black-reveals-possibilities-and-limitations/)

Michael Lapointe seems to suggest that Garnette Cadogan’s essay, “Walking While Black,” should have been included in Duncan Minshull’s anthology Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking (one of the books Lapointe discusses in his recent review essay). “[J]ust how radical is the writer-walker resurgence that Minshull hoped for 20 years ago and has watched come to pass?” Lapointe asks. “Like protesting, walking ought to be among the most democratic of activities. Look closely at the genre, though, and you’ll find that the writer-walker has a way of claiming a surprisingly exclusive status” (Lapointe). That’s true of women who walk and write; they have to be careful about walking after dark. And it’s true of Cadogan, whose encounters with police officers and white racists make walking dangerous. Cadogan’s essay, Lapointe writes, “asks us to consider how a literary creation can germinate on a stroll when ‘the sidewalk [is] a minefield’” (qtd. in Lapointe).

Cadogan’s essay begins in childhood, when he began to love walking. His violent stepfather made it safer to be out of the house—not that the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, were safe. Indeed, they “were often terrifying—you could, for instance, get killed if a political henchman thought you came from the wrong neighborhood, or even if you wore the wrong color,” since certain colors were associated with specific political parties: “The wrong color in the wrong neighborhood could mean your last day” (Cadogan). It’s not surprising, then, that Cadogan’s friends “and the rare nocturnal passerby” called him crazy for taking “long late-night walks that traversed warring political zones” (Cadogan).

Those walks had a powerful effect on Cadogan. They changed his character: “I made friends with strangers and went from being a very shy and awkward kid to being an extroverted, awkward one” (Cadogan). He learned about navigating the streets from beggars, vendors, and poor laborers. “I imagined myself as a Jamaican Tom Sawyer,” he writes, “one moment sauntering down the streets to pick low-hanging mangoes that I could reach from the sidewalk, another moment hanging outside a street party with battling sound systems, each armed with speakers piled to create skyscrapers of heavy bass” (Cadogan). The streets weren’t frightening; they were full of adventure. Sometimes he walked with others who had missed the last bus, or he would lose himself in “Mittyesque” fantasies (Cadogan). “Walking became so regular and familiar that the way home became home,” he recalls (Cadogan). He learned the rules of the Kingston streets and mapped the city’s “complex, and often bizarre, cultural and political and social activity” (Cadogan). The nighttime streets were too dangerous for women to walk alone, he acknowledges, but Cadogan walked everywhere, through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, “cutting across Jamaica’s deep social divisions” (Cadogan).

In 1996, Cadogan moved to New Orleans to go to college. He wanted to explore that city on foot, and when university staff warned him about the city’s crime rate, he decided to ignore their concerns, because Kingston’s crime rate was much higher. “What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat,” he writes. “I wasn’t prepared for any of this. I had come from a majority-black country in which no one was wary of me because of my skin color. Now I wasn’t sure who was afraid of me” (Cadogan). The police were a particular problem: “They regularly stopped and bullied me, asking questions that took my guilt for granted” (Cadogan). He quickly had to figure out how to survive those interactions, mentioning that he was a college student or accidentally pulling out his student ID when asked for his driver’s license. However, he continues, 

[i]n this city of exuberant streets, walking became a complex and often oppressive negotiation. . . . New Orleans suddenly felt more dangerous than Jamaica. The sidewalk was a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect. (Cadogan)

One night, he recalls, he waved to a passing cop: “Moments later, I was against his car in handcuffs” (Cadogan). When he asked why, he was told, “No one waves to the police” (Cadogan). His friends saw his behaviour as absurd: “‘Now why would you do a dumb thing like that?’ asked one. ‘You know better than to make nice with police’” (Cadogan).

Cadogan leaves New Orleans to visit his dying grandmother in Kingston right before Hurricane Katrina. “I hadn’t wandered those streets in eight years, since my last visit, and I returned to them now mostly at night, the time I found best for thinking, praying, crying,” he writes. “I walked to feel less alienated—from myself, struggling with the pain of seeing my grandmother terminally ill; from my home in New Orleans, underwater and seemingly abandoned; from my home country, which now, precisely because of its childhood familiarity, felt foreign to me” (Cadogan). He is surprised at how safe the streets felt: 

once again one black body among many, no longer having to anticipate the many ways my presence might instill fear and how to offer some reassuring body language. . . . I could be invisible in Jamaica in a way I can’t be invisible in the United States. Walking had returned to me a greater set of possibilities. (Cadogan).

Those possibilities are, he continues, the purpose of walking:

Following serendipity, I added new routes to the mental maps I had made from constant walking in that city from childhood to young adulthood, traced variations on the old pathways. Serendipity, a mentor once told me, is a secular way of speaking of grace; it’s unearned favor. Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling. We see, we listen, we speak, and we trust that each step we take won’t be our last, but will lead us to a richer understanding of the self and the world. (Cadogan)

“In Jamaica, I felt once again as if the only identity that mattered was my own, not the constricted one that others had constructed for me,” he continues. “I strolled into my better self. I said, along with Kierkegaard, ‘I have walked myself into my best thoughts’” (Cadogan).

When Cadogan tried to return to New Orleans a month later, there were no flights, and his aunt encourages him to stay with her in New York instead. “This wasn’t a hard sell,” he writes:

I wanted to be in a place where I could travel by foot and, more crucially, continue to reap the solace of walking at night. And I was eager to follow in the steps of the essayists, poets, and novelists who’d wandered the great city before me—Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Alfred Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick. I had visited the city before, but each trip had felt like a tour in a sports car. I welcomed the chance to stroll. I wanted to walk alongside Whitman’s ghost and “descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.” (Cadogan)

He explores the city, from the West Village to his home in the Bronx, to Queens and Brooklyn: “The city was my playground” (Cadogan). He walks with a woman he had started dating: “My impressions of the city took shape during my walks with her” (Cadogan). “The city was beguiling, exhilarating, vibrant,” he writes. “But it wasn’t long before reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone” (Cadogan). One night in the East Village, a white man punches him because “he’d merely assumed I was a criminal because of my race” (Cadogan). In addition, the “mutual distrust” between Cadogan and the police “was impossible to ignore” (Cadogan). “I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration,” he recalls: no running, no sudden movements, no hoodies, no objects in his hand, no waiting for friends on street corners (Cadogan). “As comfort set in,” though, “inevitably I began to break some of those rules, until a night encounter sent me zealously back to them, having learned that anything less than vigilance was carelessness” (Cadogan).

While jogging up the sidewalk, late to meet friends, Cadogan is approached by a police officer with a gun in his hand. “In no time, half a dozen cops were upon me, chucking me against the car and tightly handcuffing me,” he recalls (Cadogan). They ask a barrage of questions and Cadogan can’t answer them all. He tries to focus on one officer. That doesn’t work: “the others got frustrated that I wasn’t answering them fast enough and barked at me” (Cadogan). Nothing he did made any difference. “For a black man, to assert your dignity before the police was to risk assault,” he writes: 

In fact, the dignity of black people meant less to them, which was why I always felt safer being stopped in front of white witnesses than black witnesses. The cops had less regard for the witness and entreaties of black onlookers, whereas the concern of white witnesses usually registered on them. A black witness asking a question or politely raising an objection could quickly become a fellow detainee. (Cadogan)

Eventually a police captain tells the others to let Cadogan go. “Humiliated, I tried not to make eye contact with the onlookers on the sidewalk, and I was reluctant to pass them to be on my way,” he recalls (Cadogan). The police captain offers to drop him off at a subway station. “‘It’s because you were polite that we let you go,’” he tells Cadogan. “‘If you were acting up it would have been different.’” Cadogan nods and says nothing.

“I realized that what I least liked about walking in New York City wasn’t merely having to learn new rules of navigation and socialization—every city has its own,” Cadogan states. “It was the arbitrariness of the circumstances that required them, an arbitrariness that made me feel like a child again, that infantilized me” (Cadogan). “On many walks,” he continues, “I ask white friends to accompany me, just to avoid being treated like a threat,” although in New Orleans, walking with a white woman attracts more hostility (Cadogan). “Walking while black restricts the experience of walking, renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone,” Cadogan continues:

It forces me to be in constant relationship with others, unable to join the New York flâneurs I had read about and hoped to join. Instead of meandering aimlessly in the footsteps of Whitman, Melville, Kazin, and Vivian Gornick, more often I felt I was tiptoeing in Baldwin’s. . . . Walking as a black man has made me feel simultaneously more removed from the city, in my awareness that I am perceived as suspect, and more closely connected to it, in the full attentiveness demanded by my vigilance. It has made me walk more purposefully in the city, becoming part of its flow, rather than observing, standing apart. (Cadogan)

But this also means that he’s not at home in the city. Nor is he at home as a pedestrian: “Walking—the simple, monotonous act of placing one foot before the other to prevent falling—turns out not to be so simple if you’re black. Walking alone has been anything but monotonous for me; monotony is a luxury” (Cadogan). 

More than anything else, Cadogan concludes, “[w]e want the freedom and pleasure of walking without fear—without others’ fear—wherever we choose” (Cadogan). He has now lived for ten years in New York, and he continues walking its streets, which “has made it closer to home to me” (Cadogan). But at the same time, it’s not home, because “the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets. I walk them, alternately invisible and too prominent. So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness” (Cadogan).

Cadogan offers a powerful account of the possibilities and realities of walking for a black man in a racist society. There’s no question that walking is easier for some than for others. As a white, straight, cis-gendered man, I don’t face the same racism that Cadogan and many others face. That is part of my unearned privilege; I acknowledge that. What to do about it, though, is another matter. I just don’t know. I don’t feel that I can do much about the racism of other white people (I’m unlikely to witness it) nor about the racism of police officers. Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, and Clare Land, argue that it’s important to do something about white privilege. Land, for instance, argues that one also has “to consider ways to undo it,” to try to unlearn it and to be cognizant of it (31)—although it seems to me that there is a great gulf between awareness of white privilege and undoing it. Lowman and Barker are, I think, more realistic than Land in their discussion of “Settler privilege”:

As Settler Canadians, we are part of a colonizing collective, and there is no simple place we can go, or declaration we can make, that will sever us from our unearned benefits and privileges, insulate us from our fears of change, or abstract us from destructive practices on the land. No matter how hard it may be to envision, it is possible to forge different relationships to the land that are not rooted in the displacement and genocide of Indigenous nations, nor in fooling ourselves with the comfortable oblivion of indigenization and transcendence. (109)

And yet, they argue that collective action can, somehow, make change happen (109-10). It’s not clear to me, though, what kind of collective action could make the Garnette Cadogan’s walking experiences any easier, any less fraught. Perhaps some group walk, like a “Take Back the Night” event, focused on racism? I don’t know. I am sure, though, that I’m not the one to organize such an event. At the same time, though, I don’t think that for me to stay home, to abandon walking, as a way of pretending that my privilege doesn’t exist is the answer, either. That privilege will carry on whether I’m sitting at home or trudging down a grid road or along a sidewalk. So I feel caught between shock and sorrow at Cadogan’s experience, which I know is shared by many others, and a feeling of being helpless to do anything about it.

Works Cited

Cadogan, Garnette. “Walking While Black.” Literary Hub, 8 July 2016, https://lithub.com/walking-while-black/.

Land, Clare. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed, 2015.

Lapointe, Michael. “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking.” The Atlantic, August 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/how-walking-became-pedestrian-duncan-minshull-erling-kagge-walking/592792/.

Lowman, Emma Battell, and Adam J. Barker. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada, Fernwood, 2015.