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Garnette Cadogan on the Power and Privilege of Walking

By Sara King-Abadi Posted on May 09, 2018

Essayist Garnette Cadogan was faculty for our spring 2018 Literary Arts program, The Art of Walking: Writing Practice in Motion. Born and raised in Jamaica, where his love of walking first began, Garnette now calls New York home. 

Garnette’s powerful essay, “Walking While Black”, was first published in the literary magazine, Freeman’s, under the title “Black and Blue” in 2015. 

He is the 2017-2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 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. Garnette is also the editor-at-large for Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, and is at work on a book about walking. 

We met up with him to discuss the politics of walking, who controls public space, and how moving through that space helps to unspool his thoughts. 


When did walking become more than just getting from point A to point B for you?

The journey home initially began because of necessity. But, as with so many activities that come out of necessity, they contain features and hidden gifts that eventually become activities you undertake because of choice. Walking was that for me. It was necessity that drove me on the streets, making my way around by foot, since I was out until public transportation was no more. I began encountering a variety of people, a variety of characters, a variety of interpreters of the city, as I thought of them, and suddenly, walking became walking as discovery, as escape, encounter, arrival, rest, walking as a way of becoming more aware of the self, walking as a way to become aware of other selves, walking as a whole world that's hidden from me when I am making my way from point A to point B via public transportation.

What is the relationship between walking and creativity?         

The act of moving through the world at a slow pace, around three miles per hour—five kilometres an hour—allows my brain cells to start acquiring things at that pace. 

[I can] start gathering thoughts, gathering ideas, and, also, start seeing more clearly, and  sympathetically. There are times in which I can't find a sense of thought, or an idea, or a sentiment, and walking becomes a way to stumble upon it. [It] also allows me to get outside of my head [and] escape from the activity of others …  [or] to encounter others. Walking is a rich encounter with the world.

Walking for me is a way of concentrating, is a way of getting lost in my head, is a way of getting out of my head and interacting with others. In that relationship, in my own relationship with the self or my encounter with other selves, the words, thoughts, ideas, feelings, empathy, compassion, perhaps even annoyance, comes, which then informs the writing. 

What is the annoyance?

The annoyance is that sometimes it's good to be reminded of human nature [and] all our capacities for kindness, but also our capacities for cruelty. The ways in which the world brings us joy or brings us horror. There's a danger to think of walking in a Pollyannaish way—that walking is only a way of anchoring me to the beautiful things in the world. Walking also allows me to encounter the unpleasant parts of the world. That, too, informs my writing, and the kind of things that I ought to be writing against.

Human beings are irreducibly complex, so we ought to capture them in their glory, grandeur, and grossness. 

For instance in my essay, “Black and Blue,” first published in Freeman's and later published online at Literary Hub as “Walking While Black,” I was trying to talk about our common humanity. It speaks of our capacity for discovery. The way many walkers have wanted to throw themselves into cities with abandon, to discover these cities, to find the joyful routes in that city.

But it also speaks of prejudice, racism, bias, and the ways in which that shuts down the kind of possibilities that many walkers are after. In that aspect, to speak about what it's like to walk, in the city, and not come to terms with the horrors of the city, it's to come to terms with what it means to be human. It's to present a sentimental view of humans.

In that essay you talk about “an oppressive negotiation,” when walking in New Orleans. What happens when walking becomes oppressive? How do you work through that?

In Ntozake Shange’s novel, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, there's a line which keeps coming back to me: “You must make room for the fool in everybody.” 

Sometimes [walking is] oppressive because of the bias of others, and the anxiety or fear or frustration over other people's fear of you, [so] I remind myself to leave room for the fool in everybody. Also, I have to leave room for the fool in myself, because there are times in which, because of the weight of bad experiences, you sometimes misread situations and think you've seen bias when there are other things at play. You also remind yourself that, in a sense, this too can pass. You keep thinking of the direction in which you're headed, that I'm undergoing this bad experience now, but on the other end of this experience is me walking and taking in the world in its joyfulness, and for every awful person like this, on the other side of this experience are others who are nothing like that. 

Of course there are times where you think: this could be fatal. At that point you take on an armour. We all dress in costumes. There are times in which my costume becomes an armour, in which the way I dress, the way in which I respond to others, are done in a way to protect myself. 

So, to name the person most guilty of harassing me in public space and on the streets: police. No one has done that anywhere near as much as the New Orleans police department, during the nine years I lived there. I try to visit once a year, and I'll still be walking on the streets and get harassed by them. But I dress in a way in which I think they will see someone who doesn't pose any threat. Then when I speak to them, [there’s] a difference in the way I speak, and I hope that the persona they encounter is one that they find safe enough that they will release me and let me go on my way.

Walking is a rich encounter with the world.


As a woman, I can't imagine allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to be creative if I were walking in that sort of environment, so that's why I wonder how you balance that oppressive negotiation, but I guess you've grown accustomed or your armour is so thick. 

Sometimes the armour becomes thin. It's funny, I'm never sure what will get through the armour and start piercing flesh. I'm more vulnerable some times than others. Sometimes it just happens so frequently that you're frustrated and you are sick of it. Other times it happens so frequently that you are used to it and you think, ah, this is business as usual. 

What is certainly true for me as a Black man—but it's like this for a woman, for people who are homeless, people who are not capable,whether they have an injury or physically there are different capacities that they don't have that the majority of people have—is that movement is bound up in many ways with vulnerability. Far too often the options seem to be hypervisibility or invisibility, so you have to learn to navigate between those two undesirable positions, and different people end up with different strategies. 

Often it's a question of space. How do [those who are vulnerable in public space] conceive of space? Are there ways in which they can more control and manage their space, when the challenges for them, so often, are other people trying to lay claim to, impinge on, or violate their space? Much of it comes to, how do I assert space and do so in a way that maintains my safety and sanity?

Does walking ever become a form of resistance or protest? 

I think sometimes walking is a gentle protest. I hesitate to use that word because there's a long history of protest in which people are walking in unison, in solidarity, in public space in which flesh and bones are at risk, and blood is shed. But there's a resistance in the way I walk, to reduce to caricatures those that try to lasso me. 

As I said recently, here at Banff, I carry on me the shade of trespass. Many people, on seeing my Black skin, think I don't belong. There are times in which I'll walk in a neighbourhood in which I think the police will stop and harass me, where somebody will call to say we see someone suspicious, and I refuse to avoid [that space], in spite of knowing what could happen.

That is my gentle resistance. To think, this is public space and as such we should have common space and I’m not going to avoid it because you think I don't belong. You might think I have the shade of trespass. I refuse to answer to that name just because you chose to call me that. And so I walk, and I walk, and I allow my desire to take me across invisible lines in which I think, on the other side, danger and suspicion, bias and caricature may await. 

There's a resistance in the way I walk, to reduce to caricatures those that try to lasso me. 

There can be a social failure associated with walking. How do social constructs affect someone’s ability to walk?

In talking about walking one has to be very careful not to romanticise [it] and try to avoid the temptation of moral superiority that some have by saying “I pity those who can't walk, I pity the person who does not wander and give their minds over to things of the world, I pity the person who can't move at that slow pace, and slow the world down.” 

For people in many parts of the world, walking is not an activity that you do, you don't go out to take a walk. It's locomotion for many people, how they get from place A to B … and often because they can't afford to travel another way. Which is why in many places people see walking as an example of social failure. To walk is to show that you haven't accomplished something in life.

For those who are marching to argue that black citizens in the U.S. ought to be given the same rights as white citizens, and ought not to be treated as lesser humans, that marching isn't a privilege, it's an essential assertion of their being. 

In 2015, when you wrote “Walking While Black,” you said that you hoped in two years time that the essay would be obsolete— 

Yes. Unfortunately it has not become obsolete. There's still news over and over again about black citizens being shot. At the least, questions are being raised about the legitimacy of shooting. In far too many cases, the reports come in—it feels like almost daily—of people moving in public space who are vulnerable because of the colour of their skin, gender, or sexuality. So I wish that essay would be obsolete by now, and the reality is beaten-back hope. But hope persists, nonetheless. 

You’re also writing a book about walking, can you tell me more about that?

I'm writing a book in which I am asking, “What does it means to live in public space?” What does it mean to move through public space and enjoy its joys, and seize its opportunities and lay all of the possibilities that come with being in public space, such as coexisting with others, and what are the obstacles to doing so. Put simply, I'm asking, how can something as simple and mundane and commonplace as walking be a social barometer to show us the way our society is. But how can it also be something that shows the ways in which we have coexisted and we have held onto possibilities and ways we have dealt with obstacles and frustrations that come from people being in public space trying to enjoy full humanity. 

I keep coming up with titles, they are all uniformly bad … and my hope is to finish a book next year, we’ll see.

How can something as simple and mundane and commonplace as walking be a social barometer to show us the way our society is.


Can you describe more about your process? You say you always handwrite at a long kitchen counter. 

I love long kitchen counters. For me, there's something about having your thoughts stretch out, literally and metaphorically. Having them wander a nice, long, open course. Kind of makes me closer to the art of organising my thoughts much better than anything else. Also it helps rebuke my worst inclinations, which is a perfectionism that will have me fiddling with sentence after sentence after sentence ad infinitum and have me taking much longer than I ought to. And I like room. Perhaps it's because I'm a walker, or perhaps it partially explains [why] I'm a walker—the need to have all the space with which to work with my thoughts. And so walking is one way in which I do that. 

But that very act of writing, the mechanical process itself, for me, is one in which I want a nice long surface area. I want my hand with pen in it, you know, scribbling against paper. And I also like not stopping to turn back until I have at least finished, allowed my thoughts time to breathe enough where I can then look back. And so, along the process of writing, I'll add little squiggly marks or lines or arrows that point upward to a margin, or that will loop back to an earlier point. I can just make quick notes and just draw a line, have it in the margin, and keep moving about. 

Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?  

No, not at all. I went through the usual gamut of things I wanted to be growing up, which was anything from being a pilot, to being a priest. I didn't become a pilot because the lessons were too expensive, and I didn't become a priest because—girls. So there are any number of things that I wanted to be and I didn't. I just kept wandering until, at some point, I began writing as a way to understand my thoughts. Not writing for anyone else, just writing to organise things in my head. Writing because sometimes I didn't know what I believed about something until I undertook a task of putting pen to paper and trying to give structure to it—the fugitive thoughts, running around—trying to assemble it to something coherent.

It was still an activity that I did for my own clarity, for my own pleasure, for my own discovery. Along the line with encouragement from a variety of friends who thought that perhaps I had something to say that was important to others beyond my immediate circle, I considered writing as something well worth doing, and haven't looked back since. Though many times I have looked over my shoulder and wondered, "Am I crazy?" But for now I'm keeping this course, crazy as it might be. 

How have you found your time here in Banff? It's very different from New York, I bet.

It's wonderful to be in a place in which you can't forget the landscape and your relationship to it. More than anything else I'm reminded of our finitude. Such broad-shouldered, big-chested mountains and pine trees, in their svelte, delightful passion, reaching for the sun, reaching for the skies, under carpets of snow. Suddenly, you stop for a second and go, “Ah, it's good to be alive.”