Sweet Briar College’s Writers Series continues this semester with Garnette Cadogan, an essayist and journalist who focuses on history, culture and the arts. Cadogan will read from his work at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, in the Browsing Room in Mary Helen Cochran Library. The reading is sponsored by the English department and is free and open to the public.
Cadogan is 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. He also is editor-at-large for Non-Stop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro) and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance (with Shirley E. Thompson; forthcoming).
Cadogan grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and came to New Orleans in 1996 to attend college. After Hurricane Katrina, he moved to New York City, where he lives today.
His current project is a book based on his 2016 essay “Walking While Black,” which recounts his experiences on the streets of New Orleans and New York City. For someone who, in his mind, mastered navigating one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, the U.S. proved an entirely different — and in many ways more dangerous — terrain.
“In this city of exuberant streets, walking became a complex and often oppressive negotiation,” Cadogan writes of his time in New Orleans.
I would see a white woman walking towards me at night and cross the street to reassure her that she was safe. … 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.
In another essay, Cadogan illustrates what it feels and smells like to traverse New York’s five boroughs on foot:
When I enter the South Bronx my pulse becomes polyrhythmic. And how could it not? Afro-Caribbean music greets me from cars doubling as drive-by sound systems. Strangers greet me with friendly salutations … that have the flavor of family nicknames. Chatter intermingled with laughter is ubiquitous. The smells of Jamaican and Mexican and Puerto Rican and Ghanaian food pervade the atmosphere, and my stomach is at odds with my brain.
Not surprisingly, Cadogan says his best writing usually happens at his kitchen counter.
“In my dream office, my desk is custom-made from a kitchen counter,” he said in a recent interview with Tin House. “I have no ceremonies or requirements that accompany my writing, except that I need to have pen and paper (in any form — napkins, concert programs, even cereal boxes; I don’t write on a laptop until I have most or everything down on paper).”
Twenty years after that first walk through New Orleans, Cadogan still considers his impact on others very carefully — not to censor his writing, as he censored his clothing as a college student, but to contemplate every possible angle.
“I am drawn to questions that demand patience and thoughtfulness. As I pursue these, hoping to discover stories and ideas that reveal how fascinating and irreducibly complex our world is, I hope that I’ll please myself at my most curious, most thoughtful, most compassionate. And in doing so, I pretend that I am a stand-in for an audience of thoughtful people,” he told Tin House.
“But I also imagine myself at my worst — impatient, lazy, obnoxious — and try to write to move this version of me to listen to the best me. So, I try to be a spectrum of readers and hope that, in satisfying the various versions of me, I’ll say something that will enrich a variety of readers, including some not ready to give me a fair listening.”
Cadogan has received research fellowships from Yale University, the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago and New York University. In his research, he explores the promise and perils of urban life, the vitality and inequality of cities, and the challenges of pluralism.
For more information about the reading and this year’s Writers Series, email John Gregory Brown, director of the creative writing program, at firstname.lastname@example.org.