Chalk Radio

Encountering Each Other (Essayist Garnette Cadogan)

Episode Summary

Essayist Garnette Cadogan shares a new approach for teaching about race and racism in American cities.

Episode Notes

Garnette Cadogan is an acclaimed essayist who teaches in MIT’s Urban Studies and Planning program. As befits a teacher who is also a professional creative writer, he conceives of the academic syllabus as a matrix of interconnected and recurring themes and leitmotifs, not as a schematic outline of self-contained units. In this episode, he describes how he designed his latest class, 11.S947 The Fire This Time: Race and Racism in American Cities, to draw on a wide range of cultural documents—not only written texts but also standup comedy, song, poetry, and film—to de-simplify students’ understanding of racial relations. Too often, he says, the struggle for social justice is presented in terms of a teleological progression toward freedom and inclusion, and too often victimization is presented as if it were the only experience of those on the receiving end of racism’s injustices. Oppression dehumanizes everyone, oppressor and oppressed alike, Cadogan says, but it isn’t the sum total of anyone’s being. He hopes this class will help students encounter the experiences of others in their full human complexity of joy, hope, pessimism, struggle, and imagination.

Relevant Resources

MIT OpenCourseWare

The OCW Educator Portal

Garnette Cadogan’s course 1.S947 The Fire This Time: Race and Racism in American Cities -- coming soon!

Garnette Cadogan’s course 11.S948 Seeing the City Afresh on OCW 

Garnette Cadogan’s essay “Walking While Black”

Garnette Cadogan’s faculty page

Watch MIT’s 47th Annual MLK Jr Celebration to hear more voices on the role of joy in the struggle against systemic racism 

Read Honing My Knife Skills, an essay by Sharon Lin, one of Garnette Cadogan's students in the course, The Fire This Time

Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions


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Sarah Hansen, host and producer

Brett Paci, producer  

Dave Lishansky, producer 

Show notes by Peter Chipman

Episode Transcription


GARNETTE CADOGAN: Many times, what is happening, at the heart of racism, are people not merely denying other people's dignity and humanity, but denying their very own dignity and humanity.


SARAH HANSEN: Today on Chalk Radio, an innovative approach to teaching about race and racism.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: It means pulling back and asking some tough questions about our society, about ourselves, about what it takes to move forward, understanding each other, but also working to advance a much more just society and a much better way of understanding what it means to coexist.

SARAH HANSEN: In this episode, an urban studies course examines our lives in public spaces and invites us to consider how our very personal experiences might also contain the experiences of others. In our conversation about his course 11.S947 "The Fire ThisTime-- Race and Racism in American Cities", visiting scholar and acclaimed essayist Garnette Cadogan shares his approach for helping students wrestle with, as he puts it, the story of racism in the United States. Part of what I love about Garnette's approach is how he weaves his own life experiences into his teaching. A large focus of his life and work has been observing cities through a unique modality-- walking.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: It's such a human pace. It allows us to inscribe ourselves onto the world and allow the word inscribe itself onto our imagination. But, more than anything else, it's a marvelously joyful way of getting to know the world, of getting to know it up close, not merely getting to know it but getting to know ourselves through the surprising encounters we might have.

So one of the things I love most about walking is the way in which it opens us up to serendipity. So walking as a way of knowing the world, as a way of knowing ourselves, as a way of being open to the surprise and serendipities of the world.

SARAH HANSEN: Garnette grew up in Jamaica, where he learned to navigate public spaces on foot.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: In Jamaica, as I walked, I walked a lot at night after public transportation had stopped running and would navigate from friends' homes to my home and pass through some very dangerous neighborhoods and learned how to be street wise as in the wisdom gained from constant observation and being able to anticipate dangers or sometimes encountering true dangers and knowing how to get away from the dangers. And I thought that's all you needed to do to be navigating in public space and to be safe, to anticipate the dangers and veer away from them.

SARAH HANSEN: When he arrived in the United States as a college student, his experiences with racism began to shape the way he traversed city streets.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: And I came to the US with that sensibility and then began encountering racism but recognized that what actually happened then, it wasn't so much learning how to read the danger but learning to read in places in which people thought I was a danger. That's what had happened that-- and it was over and over again: me seeing the dangers and veering away from it but then suddenly recognizing and being shocked to know that I was the danger. And I was a danger because I was Black, because of my skin color. So navigating then suddenly became trying to anticipate the ways in which people would anticipate me being dangerous.

It meant calibrating my movements not to fear but calibrating my movements to people's fear of me and knowing that that could be dangerous to me, that it could mean anything from them attacking me, which had happened, or threatening to attack me or them calling the police, who would then give me a tough time. I'm able to many times deal with the awfulness that the world throws at me because of the beauty that the world also presents, that the world is never just one thing. And so, yes, there are people who will shout awful racist things at me in the street.

But there's also that stranger who says, oh, I'm going to a barbecue. And it looks like you're just wandering and looking for something to do. You want to come along with us? And so that's the very same world.

SARAH HANSEN: The very same world. There was something so powerful in that idea. And I began to wonder how this outlook shaped Garnette's teaching in the classroom, how he approached the ideas of race and racism with students with this outlook in mind.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: I focus very much in the classroom on joy, in the way in which joy becomes, in so many ways, both a hope and the way joy's wed to hope. But joy's also wed to resistance. In the way joy is wed to our ability to deal with these things and to push past these things. So, as a teacher, I, time and again, try to invite students to read the way I walk.

It becomes a way of having a conversation, a conversation with the past, a conversation with the present, a conversation with people nearby, a conversation with people who are far away, and, more than anything else, a conversation with yourself, a way of wrestling with yourself. In the end, that's my hope, a different self can emerge. A different, better self, much more open to discovery and encounter.

SARAH HANSEN: For Garnette, encountering others is key to understanding the story of racism in American cities and for imagining a different, much more dignified way to coexist. It's an idea that grounds how he teaches about these complexities.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: What does it mean to think of the classroom as a place of encounter in which you're continually encountering these issues, these histories, these landscapes, these complexities, these people? And what does it mean to truly listen, to truly understand?

SARAH HANSEN: Garnette shared with me that it can feel disheartening to unpack the complexities of racism in our society. Students and teachers alike may experience burnout over the course of a semester. As I talked with Garnette, it struck me that helping students cultivate curiosity about themselves and others was a strategic way to sustain their engagement.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: When you have something so huge, it's to say, oh, we're justgoing to climb this mountain right away. It's just impossible. That your legs will give outquite quickly. And it will just lead to frustration.

So I invite them to just take a small patch and to keep moving patch by patch on that mountain until, at a certain point, they'll look up and go, oh, we're halfway up. And we'reactually not even trying to conquer the mountain anymore. That was the wrong way to go about it. We're just now at the place in which we're happy to investigate the terrain and then to ask each other what the terrain looks like where you are so you could learn more about the mountain. And we might not actually even reach the top, but we'll have a much better understanding of landscape and of flora and fauna and of nature and a much better sense of what it means to hike thoughtfully.

SARAH HANSEN: As an essayist, Garnette brings an innovative slant to teaching aboutrace and racism. For him, the act of writing and having students write is a way to do thework of encountering others.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: Writing is sometimes just merely a way of raising questions rather than giving answers, particularly on issues connected with race and racism in cities. That's a big order. It's a lifetime of thinking and wrestling with complicated issues,racism, race, which is produced by racism, in American cities. What does it take to understand and to wrestle with in a full-- in a scope and the complications connected with each of these.

And the writing becomes a way sometimes just merely to ask questions that say, oh, we have not been asking the right questions. This invites us to ask new questions. Or this invites us to see in new ways. This invites us to listen. And, more than anything, it invites us to encounter each other in conversation but also encounter others on the page.

It means pulling back and asking some tough questions about our society, about ourselves, about what it takes to move forward, understanding each other but also working to advance a much more just society and a much better way of understanding what it means to coexist, what it means to live together alongside each other. And the writing becomes a way to explore that. So, as they're writing, they're suddenlyrecognizing that the whole world is their material. And they're invited to think just expansively and to start recognizing the ways in which they haven't been seeing, the ways in which they haven't been looking. They're beginning to ask, what might it mean to listen to the people who are doing harm, listen to the people who have experienced harm, and to listen more fully and broadly?

SARAH HANSEN: As my conversation with Garnette continued, it became clear that, for him, listening more fully means tuning into how people navigate the world in nuanced ways. It means writing about how they encounter harm but also how they cultivate joyand hope and community.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: There's a temptation to write about people who have experienced racism as just the sum total of what has happened to them. So they're merely victims with no agency. And they're then invited to go beyond that by suddenly asking, what are the ways in which they experience joy?

What are the ways in which they hope? What are the ways in which they work towardscreating a sense of belonging for themselves and others? What are the tight bonds ofcommunity and family and country for the people that we're writing about? And what are the ways in which these are broken or erupted or eroded?

And you're not suddenly speaking of people in a condescending or paternalistic matter. You're speaking of people that's fully rounded, no longer flattened. But you're seeing them in rich dimension with aspirations and joys and frustrations and faults and virtues.

SARAH HANSEN: Even when writing about people as fully rounded individuals, students may encounter challenges when learning to write about race. Garnette elaborated on oneof the complexities many writers face.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: One of the problems with speaking about and writing about race is that too often people are made to feel that their responsibilities are to explain one side to another side, to explain that Black experience to people who are not Black, or to explain what it means to inhabit a particular body and set of experiences that are unique to you and that make moving through or living in the world a much worse experience than someone with a different skin color. But part of the challenge is to show the ways in which racism degrades everyone, that, in degrading someone else, you can't help but degrade yourself.

And, in that class, one of the things I'm trying to invite people to do, trying to invite students to think about, is the responsibility's not merely to think of writing about race or understanding race, of trying to show one set of experiences to someone who's foreign to it, but to show the ways in which we have quite a bit of common experiences and that, many times, what is happening at the heart of racism are people not merely denying other people's dignity and humanity, but denying their very own dignity and humanity.And so it's an invitation to figure out how to write about race and racism in which we're showing the ways in which we contain each other.

So I keep giving them multiple small exercises in which, time and time again, they begin with themselves. And they begin by saying, how do I see? Or even to write that I wantthem to just think about multiple voices. What does it mean to think of writing as not just merely speaking, but as a way of integrating your voice with the voice of others? What are other people's ways of telling your stories?

And how can you tell a story about them, your honest telling of their story, but in a way that fully honors them telling their own story. And that seems like such a huge task forpeople. And so I begin by saying, oh, let's play critical karaoke.

SARAH HANSEN: Garnette adapted this practice from a music conference he attended where attendees got to speak about a song as the song played. I sat in on one of his classes and observed critical karaoke in action. It was one of the most powerful teaching methods I've seen yet for capturing how we contain each other.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: They begin by starting to say, this is what the song is about. Or this is why it relates to this particular issue. Or my thinking on this issue.

And you're hearing them speak about the song but tying the song to a larger issue thatthey're thinking about and then speaking about lyrics of the song or something that thesong does. And, at that point, their voice fades out. And you hear the song, the song's notes or the song's lyrics coming. And it teaches them in a fun way how to begin to think about interweaving my voice with the voice of others, how to speak alongside others rather than about others in which you're speaking about them denies them agency and dignity.

SARAH HANSEN: Critical karaoke is one example of how Garnette is rethinking how weengage students in learning about racism. But there's something even more profound atwork in his teaching. He's fundamentally reimagining a framework for how we approach the topic with students, veering off a well-trod sequential strategy and jumping into a mind-opening matrix of connections.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: I'd looked at a lot of syllabuses. I went online and tried to find every syllabus I could find that was available at different universities about race and racism in America, particularly in American cities. And the approach tends to have it organized by issue.

This week, we will discuss slavery. Or these weeks, we will discuss slavery, then emancipation, the Civil Rights Movement, mass incarceration, policing, education, environmental injustice, housing and development, education. And I found what actually happened was that, when I began discussing by way of issues, then people so often organize around issues. And then they felt that they had to resolve it at that moment.

SARAH HANSEN: So he decided to shift the focus.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: It became on inequality, on freedom, on joy, on pessimism and hope, on belonging, on mythology, on unrest, on violence, on resistance, on imagination. It was an invitation to say we will not figure out mass incarceration in one week, that it became a way of spreading the issues out. And so mass incarceration would come upwhen we were talking about inequality.

And then it would return again when we were talking about hope and pessimism. Andthen it would return again when we were talking about resistance. And they then had the invitation to have spent a whole semester to think through this thing and then suddenly recognize the ways in which we thought we were all bound up in each other, the issues themselves were all bound up in each other.

As you began to think about issues having to do with mass incarceration, you were also thinking about issues having to do with police. And you were thinking about issues having to do with housing. You were thinking about education.

You were thinking about investment and disinvestment. And suddenly, instead of in a teleogical line, which is so often how we talk about race and what I recognized with a lot of the syllabuses, it's moving from unfreedom to freedom with occasional hiccups. That was the wrong way to think about it, rather than a matrix in which everything was deeply connected to the other.

SARAH HANSEN: Garnette views the act of creating his syllabus as being very similar towriting the narrative of a story.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: One thing I do with the syllabus is that I make the syllabus a story in and of itself, that too often syllabuses are schematic, that they're almost disconnected rooms in a house, or they're treated like rooms in this mansion, that there's a site where you can go from one to the other. And I think of the syllabus as one big hall.And then in a big hall where different gatherings, you can go and then you can comeback.

So you don't leave one room, and you never return. And so I treat the syllabus like a full story. And so there are songs we will hear. And then we hear them again later on in a different context. There are poems that we will read, and we read them again later on.

Or there's one particular article they'll read on the second week, and then we read it again on the seventh week, which seems like, what? Didn't we read this again? And theysuddenly read it with new eyes.

And it becomes a way of seeing it as a story. And then I think of things as leitmotifs to say we will begin discussing this. But then we will stop here. And so they get the taste of it. And then it comes back more full-blown later on. And so I think of it as a particular narrative arc, so treat the semester itself like a narrative arc.

SARAH HANSEN: For Garnette, the syllabus must be as multidimensional as the students themselves, incorporating opportunities for joy and reflection. And it should also be shaped by the students' voices.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: Every week, they encounter stand-up comedy. And they encounter poetry. They encounter song. They encounter film. They encounter short story,fiction, essay, reportage, the academic article. And so there are a variety of voices.

And it's an invitation to understand the world in the many ways the world presents itself to you, in knowledge. One of the fascinating things about teaching a course like this is, how do you keep yourself open to being taught by the students? And thinking about this balancing of many voices, voices from the past or voices near and far. Can you accommodate their voices?

And so, in a class like this, one has to be very open and ready to listen and to have students express their own autonomy in shaping it. Because there's also great irony in not doing that because one of the things at the heart of racism is the denial of autonomy to others, the ways in which many times authorities used to stamp on autonomy. And for me not to listen, not to have them be active agents in shaping and reshaping the class would then be a version of that, of authority denying autonomy.

SARAH HANSEN: To close, I'd like to leave you with a quote from Garnette about joy andresilience.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: One of the things I had made a decision very early is that I am not the sum total of what happens to me. It's just something I keep reminding students as they study about race and racism, that people are more than the sum total of the awful things that have happened to them, that there's a possibility of joy, of resistance, of moving through the world, not ignoring the awful things that have happened to you but of determining that you will not let these awful things define and constrain you.

SARAH HANSEN: If you're ready to learn more about writing and teaching about raceand racism and unpacking the story of the American city, you'll soon be able to find Garnette Cadogan's teaching materials on our MIT OpenCourseWare website. Ourmaterials are always free. If you're an educator who remixes the resources in your own teaching, please call or write to us to share your story. You'll help inspire others.

Thank you so much for listening. Signing off from Cambridge, Massachusetts, I'm SarahHansen from MIT OpenCourseWare.



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