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The Joys and Dangers of Walking While Black

We spoke to Garnette Cadogan, whose brilliant essay in 'The Fire This Time' shows how walking is yet another arena where a black person must tread carefully.

by Mensah Demary
Aug 23 2016, 8:06pm

The Upper West Side in New York City, 2012. Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

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"There are five excellent reasons to buy this book," Dwight Garner wrote in his New York Times review of The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (Scribner, 2016), a new collection of essays edited by National Book Award–winning author Jesmyn Ward. "The essays by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Garnette Cadogan, and Ms. Ward. Each is so alive with purpose, conviction, and intellect that, upon finishing their contributions, you feel you must put this volume down and go walk around for a while."

Garner's review appeared online the same day I met Cadogan, a traditional flâneur whose essay "Black and Blue" concerns the fraught prospect of walking while black. Cadogan, a tall, slight man with an undulating Jamaican accent and red-rimmed reading glasses, delivered to Ward's project an essay that successfully catalyzes an otherwise banal act—walking—into yet another arena where a black person must consider his body and its safety, its agency. Cadogan, in "Black and Blue," literally walks in search of a safe space—Cadogan discovered his love for walking at age ten, in 1980s Kingston, Jamaica, fleeing a violent stepfather—and finds wonder, bewilderment, and confrontation, whether strolling through New Orleans pre-Katrina or traversing New York's boroughs.

Cadogan is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. We spoke last week at the Catapult office in Manhattan about walking into one's best thoughts, James Baldwin's theory of love, and what it's like to be a black body moving through frequently threatening space.

VICE: What has been the overall impression you've gotten from readers of "Black and Blue," either before or since it has appeared in The Fire This Time?
Garnette Cadogan: It's been surprising the range of readers who've responded and the ways in which they have responded—readers who aren't black, taken aback by how much this mundane act was so full of complications. They never imagined the dividing line between the way they move in public space, versus the way someone of dark complexion sometimes move through public space. What is also encouraging is a set of letters from across the country and even beyond the water's edge, from Europe and even someone from South Africa, just writing to encouragement me, saying, "Garnette, we walk with you," or some variation of that. You never know sitting down in a room with four walls staring at you if your words will be met with silence.

In reading the essay, I thought that you raised a really good point about respectability politics as survival tactics as you're walking the streets.
My dear friend Rebecca Solnit has written a lot about what it means to be a woman moving in public space, and she touches on it in her marvelous book Wanderlust, a terrific history of walking, and more. We, the vulnerable, have to wear costumes in order to feel safe, or to feel less unsafe. I remember once walking down the street, and a police car pulled alongside me and its flashing lights came on. I immediately dropped the book I was carrying and put my hands against the wall, taking the initiative in showing compliance before the cops said anything, and the car quickly drove off.

Up came an older black man saying, "You're OK—you're a nerd. They leave nerds alone." And so there's this whole costume that we take on for ease, safety, even warmth—just so that you won't offend anyone else, lest their fear causes us to fear since the last thing you want is for them to have to call the police. It's not so much other citizens you fear, but other citizens' access to police.

Is that interaction actually successful? Does the costume even work?
I think the costume does work, but one of the things you have to balance is the desire to wear a costume for your safety, not to wear a mask you now hide behind to feel safe. I try not to feel alienated through walking. But at the same time, I don't want to be alienated from myself, I don't want to be alienated from my community—whether it's my community of immigrants or community of black adults, adults, or any number of other communities that define or embrace me.I keep moving between this tension between hyper-visibility and invisibility, that is captured by the essay's name "Black and Blue," which allude to black bodies, and the bodies in blue—police officers. I also wanted to allude to the opening of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man—someone who is hyper-visible and invisible at the same time.

"There's this whole costume that we take on for ease, safety, even warmth. It's not so much other citizens you fear, but other citizens' access to police."

The editor for The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward, described "Black and Blue" in her introduction to the book as an essay on "the black body in space." The book in general has a lineage to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. There was a nice synchronicity between your essay and Baldwin, who attempted to witness and document the world around him, and created a body of work that probes, that roams.
I wanted to write something that revealed what is it like to live in contemporary America as a black person, not merely as a black man. One of the things that I admire about Baldwin is the ways in which he had a handle on our common humanity and showed ways how we can't degrade others without degrading ourselves.

In the early part of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote, "We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and you children's children." I wanted to write an essay that had love shot through it, and showed the importance of how love is critical to survival. The kind of love that Baldwin wrote about so often: a robust, rich and firm, powerful, potent thing.

You enjoy being in the thick of human interaction and movement like any other flâneur, and yet because of your black body there is that anxiety of a performative or respectability tactic breaking down, eventually leading into a confrontation with the police.
As a walker, you have a limited role in how much you can control the environment around you, so walking allows a freedom or independence, and an ability to discover things, but it also gives you over to the world around you—to serendipity—to move around in a way that surprises you. But if you are black, aimless movement, unpredictable movement, spontaneous movement leads to what some might consider suspicious movement. And suspicious movement invites the police, and the police, of course, will ask you to give account of the unpredictable, of the aimless, of the spontaneous.

Obliviousness could mean putting yourself in a place where you are blown into oblivion. And so time and again I ask, "OK, what's the rhythm of the city?" or "What's the rhythm of this neighborhood?" and I try to flow into that rhythm, and it brings out an accidental joy as you suddenly recognize patterns of the city or community, and understand ways in which to be a part of it. I'm trying not to be too out of step with the rhythm of the environment, because suddenly I become visible for the wrong reasons.

'The Fire This Time' and essayist Garnette Cadogan. Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster/photo of Garnette Cadogan by Bart Babinski

Jesmyn Ward opens the book with the memory of Trayvon Martin who, in many ways, has a one-to-one comparison of the logical, violent conclusion as a black body walking through space. Trayvon Martin was literally a black body in space walking from Point A to Point B before his fatal run-in with George Zimmerman.
[The discussions about Travyon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman] left you weary, and it left in you a suspicion, which became confirmation, that you're walking with a lot more fragility—that your mortality is a lot more tenuous, that the dangers that you face are a lot greater. Previously, you wondered why you often got remarks like, "Oh, why are these things always happening to you? These things never happen to me." Now suddenly, here are thousands of witnesses, challenging those doubts, saying, "Ah, me too!"

When I wrote this essay, I fantasized that it would become obsolete. I really hoped that in a few years, people would legitimately object, "What are you talking about? This is not the America we are living in." But I wrote it also with the recognition that this has absolutely been going on for far too long, and may continue for a long time—and it's heartbreaking.

First and foremost, walking as a pastime is a joy for you. You wrote, "I strolled into my better self. I said, along with Kierkegaard, 'I have walked myself into my best thoughts.'"
It gives you a sense of civic virtue: you're not just swerving around or slipping through the world, and that you're actually a part of it and feeling a sense of commitment to it that makes you grow because of your constant exposure to things beyond yourself. But it also gives you a sense of playfulness, and a sense of tragedy, and let's you hear people's stories and reveals a wide kaleidoscope of the world and a full arc of humanity—humans in their joys and selfishness and generosity, and frustrations and confusions and warmth. There are few human activities that I know of that allow you to be as intimately engaged with other people, and that puts you as in touch with who you are. You learn to deal with people in their generosity and shortcomings; you learn to deal with them in their warmth and their selfishness, their humor and annoyances. Walking allows a better me because all of these splendid opportunities that come with walking and [that it] gives to us.

I want to end this with the end of your essay: "I lived in the New York City for almost a decade, and have not stopped walking its fascinating streets, and I have not stopped walking to find the solace that I found as a kid walking the streets of Kingston. Much of coming to know New York City's streets has made it closer to home for me, the city will also withhold itself from me via those very streets. So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness."
Because walking can be contested, it's a simple act in which I am trying to enjoy the world, undertaking this act that has so much symbolic significance—freedom, independence, discovery, agency, encountering the suspicion of others: All of this has allowed me to seek limits. Time and again I find that there are different encounters that require you to forgive. Part of that act of forgiveness comes from not trying to celebrate alone. It's one of the things that is marvelous about seeing protests. Even if you're arguing and protesting against people who are moving together in time, harmony and solidarity you can't just look at it passively, and it does something to you to see that energy that collective solidarity.

Yes, I have had really awful encounters with the police, but I don't hate them. I know police officers I respect; some, I even delight in their company. There is one Italian-American cop in Brooklyn whom I know loves Jamaican food, and when I see him he's telling me about the next new Jamaican restaurant, while I joke, "You are more Jamaican than me, my favorite Jamaican." What is true for me, then, is true for so many: Awful things are happening, but we are more than what happens to us. The entire story is not one of tragedy: It is so much bigger, and more rich, and more wonderful, and more marvelous. I am someone moving through space, enjoying life and experiencing some of its horrors—but that it is not the end of the story.

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The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, is out from Simon and Schuster and available in bookstores and online.