I’m one of those people who need to spend a solid part of the day on foot. When I visit a new city, I pound its sidewalks; I often spend hours on outdoor trails with a group of like-minded people who can’t sit still; my morning and afternoon commutes are longer than they need to be so that I can clear my head via a form of self-locomotion that falls somewhere between the aimless pace of a flâneur and the crazed-hilarious rush of power walkers. And yes, every day– every one– I’m out on the public pavement, I’m reminded that I have to keep my wits about me; the jibes directed at my gendered body range from the pathetic to the comical to the outright threatening, proof that nobody’s entirely free in this world to exist with impunity.
This continual catcalling has nothing to do with me in particular; I don’t know one woman, regardless of her size or age or anything not directly related to her gender, who doesn’t have to put up with this crap. But here’s the thing: I’m well aware that others have to be much more guarded than I– even have to be prepared for disaster– when they step out into the streets. I’ve long grasped and lamented on a factual, even if not experiential, level that walking while black is a dangerous proposition. But Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue,” in the collected volume, The Fire This Time, made clear in a way I hadn’t yet felt it the fraught reality entailed in a black man’s simply walking out the door in the United States.
Had I not had to turn the book back in to the library today, I’d probably be able to offer you more of the specifics, the scenes and turns of phrase, that brought home just how much the avid walker I am had been taking for granted the mere act of placing one foot publicly in front of the other. Thankfully, though, I scribbled down the following paragraph:
Walking had returned to me a greater set of possibilities. And why walk, if not to create a new set of possibilities? Following serendipity, I added new routes to the mental maps I had made from constant walking in that city [Kingston] 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 into a richer understanding of the self and the world.*
This is the author describing his long walks through Kingston, Jamaica’s dangerous streets– an exploration of “a greater set of possibilities” that was severely compressed and penned in in the supposedly safer cities of New York and New Orleans, thanks to dark skin being viewed there with hostile suspicion by the powers-that-be. Reading about that constriction was another variety of the slap in the face I received while in Palestine, learning just how restrictive “restricted movement” could be for entire neighborhoods, entire regions.
I’m not saying that those of us lucky enough to be able to stroll or even hurriedly run down a street without being (for the most part) unmolested should worriedly (and ineffectually) make a show of moaning about our privilege in an attempt to assuage our guilt. But we should at the very, very least understand that there’s something terribly, malevolently wrong about a social structure in which that most natural– and necessary– of human activities somehow acts as evidence against the person partaking in it. And following on that understanding, we should be incensed and hell-bent on figuring out how to make this atrocity and its related cruel idiocies cease, now, permanently. Because until we’re all free to stroll down the block, hands comfortably tucked in warm pockets and just enjoying the day, none of us is truly free to do so at all.
Cadogan’s essay is one that needs to be read, even if you’re well-versed in the situations he describes. Thankfully, you can get a version online of the essay, here titled “Walking While Black.” Don’t stop walking– but whoever and however lucky you are, don’t ever take walking for granted.
* Garnette Cadogan, “Black and Blue,” in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward (New York: Scribner, 2016), 136.