Walking while black

“It must be exhausting,” The World host Marco Werman said to Garnette Cadogan on Wednesday’s broadcast, “to live with this all…the…time.”

Photo: The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Werman was voicing what anyone who listened to Cadogan’s description of his life had to be thinking if they are capable of any decency at all.

It is exhausting, Cadogan said. But what’s dangerous is he’s become accustomed to it.

Cadogan, from Jamaica, loves to walk. Then he moved to the United States and the joy was diminished.

“For me it’s still the most remarkable way of moving through the world. It’s is a way of independence, it’s freedom, it’s exploration, discovery. But it still feels like a joy cut short, a delight squeezed, an enjoyment clipped. You’d like to be singing in the rain but instead you’re hunching your back and hoping not to get washed away.”

Cadogan is black.

  1. Listen PRI’s The World talks to Garnette Cadogan on ‘Walking While Black’

    July 13, 2016

His story isn’t singular. It’s not even new. But our antennae are more finely tuned in recent days and so his essay, via Literary Hub, is getting more deserved attention.

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. I was especially unprepared for the cops. They regularly stopped and bullied me, asking questions that took my guilt for granted. I’d never received what many of my African-American friends call “The Talk”: No parents had told me how to behave when I was stopped by the police, how to be as polite and cooperative as possible, no matter what they said or did to me. So I had to cobble together my own rules of engagement. Thicken my Jamaican accent. Quickly mention my college. “Accidentally” pull out my college identification card when asked for my driver’s license.

The “sartorial choice” of white T-shirt and jeans was off limits to him, he said. He learned never to wear a hoodie. He didn’t carry anything in his hands. No running. No sudden movements.

One night, returning to the house that, eight years after my arrival, I thought I’d earned the right to call my home, I waved to a cop driving by. Moments later, I was against his car in handcuffs. When I later asked him—sheepishly, of course; any other way would have asked for bruises—why he had detained me, he said my greeting had aroused his suspicion. “No one waves to the police,” he explained. When I told friends of his response, it was my behavior, not his, that they saw as absurd. “Now why would you do a dumb thing like that?” said one. “You know better than to make nice with police.”

He eventually moved to New York, a walker’s paradise. But he couldn’t escape the reality that comes attached to his skin.

One night in the East Village, I was running to dinner when a white man in front of me turned and punched me in the chest with such force that I thought my ribs had braided around my spine. I assumed he was drunk or had mistaken me for an old enemy, but found out soon enough that he’d merely assumed I was a criminal because of my race. When he discovered I wasn’t what he imagined, he went on to tell me that his assault was my own fault for running up behind him. I blew off this incident as an aberration, but the mutual distrust between me and the police was impossible to ignore. It felt elemental. They’d enter a subway platform; I’d notice them. (And I’d notice all the other black men registering their presence as well, while just about everyone else remained oblivious to them). They’d glare. I’d get nervous and glance. They’d observe me steadily. I’d get uneasy. I’d observe them back, worrying that I looked suspicious. Their suspicions would increase. We’d continue the silent, uneasy dialogue until the subway arrived and separated us at last.

In time it became more comfortable, so he started breaking his own rules. Then he jogged to the subway because he was running late to meet a friend.

He was surrounded by a dozen cops barking questions. As he answered one, others became frustrated he wasn’t answering their questions quickly enough.

For a black man, to assert your dignity before the police was to risk assault. 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. Deference to the police, then, was sine qua non for a safe encounter.

The cops ignored my explanations and my suggestions and continued to snarl at me. All except one of them, a captain. He put his hand on my back, and said to no one in particular, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” He then instructed that the cuffs be removed. He told me that a black man had stabbed someone earlier two or three blocks away and they were searching for him. I noted that I had no blood on me and had told his fellow officers where I’d been and how to check my alibi—unaware that it was even an alibi, as no one had told me why I was being held, and of course, I hadn’t dared ask. From what I’d seen, anything beyond passivity would be interpreted as aggression.

He was released. Nobody apologized. It was his fault for running.

He still walks in the city, but he doesn’t feel like it’s his city. He is, he says, alternately invisible and too prominent.

He is exhausted.

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