Although I’ve always revolted against linearity, I think I began to engage seriously with the concept of time during the fall of 2019, when I introduced my students to Afrofuturisms. We studied a provocative piece by Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney and artist based in North Philly.
It expanded on Audre Lorde’s famous line that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” by focusing on the master’s clock and its inscription of linear time. Both colonialism and slavery, compress the bodies of the colonized and enslaved, forging their labor and time into forms of currency.
Hence every waking moment of an enslaved person’s life was managed, extracted, and monetized. Even their time of birth or death was appropriated.
Phillips’s analysis is simple. If the oppressed don’t control the past, how can they belong to a linear, fatalistic future? It’s a straight line from subjugation to nowhere. This is why she says, civil rights and Black liberation movements have had to create disturbances to ‘steal time,’ and fight for space on the Western timeline. Their futurist imaginaries had to hack linearity, to stake their claim to the future.
Some of these ideas came back to me in 2020, post pandemic, when I was listening to an interview with Noura Erakat, a Palestinian American scholar, human rights attorney, and writer. She was asked, what it meant to her, as a Palestinian, that Palestine is slowly disappearing. After all, one can see it clearly by comparing maps, from 1948, to 1967, to the present time. Her answer was intriguing. She said, even though the territorial reality is shrinking, Palestinians aren’t. They remain attached to the land, and Palestine remains alive in them. There is no end time, when this ‘vanishing’ becomes a fait accompli, for there is always a possibility of indigenous resurgence. She didn’t recognize Palestine as ‘disappearance,’ rather it was manifest in ‘being’. To her, this was an anti-colonial understanding of time.
If the oppressed don’t control the past, how can they belong to a linear, fatalistic future? It’s a straight line from subjugation to nowhere.
The Western view that time is a linear vector traversing history, moving unquestionably from ignorance and barbarity toward science, civilization and prosperity, might be grounded in an obsession with a final destination, an end-goal one must continue to strive for. Perhaps it’s a way of navigating the world’s chaos. Chinese philosophy, on the other hand, does not seek to evade such chaos. It embraces cosmic dualism or yin yang, which is the co-existence of opposite forces and the creation of balance. Yin and yang are linked to the earth’s cycle around the sun and the resultant four seasons. It’s an alternative understanding of time.
There are many others. The Yoruba of Nigeria also perceive time as being circular, such that the beginning and the end are always fastened together. There are no clear-cut partitions between the past, present and future. They mingle intimately, going forwards or backwards, in a continuous cycle, such that ‘eternity’ becomes conceivable.
I think, I am most blown away by Indigenous Australian philosophies and their take on time, which, by the way, aligns beautifully with modern physics. They believe that time is linked to space. Rather than being preoccupied by its shape, they are interested in its connection to, or rupture from place.
For Indigenous people, every moment is placed and every place exists within a time context. There is no absolute marker of a place on a map, or of a moment in time – everything is connected. Oral philosophical traditions center this relatedness, this relationship between everything – a kinship between human and non-human, between individuals and communities, between land and people.
As I read more about time, in the midst of a quarantine that keeps unraveling its tightly configured algorithms, I came across a poem, I had written 10 years ago. It’s about a moment of clarity I experienced, in the El Yunque rainforest, in Puerto Rico. I was astonished to come across these lines:
connectedness, that weathered word;
brainwave to beating heart to ligament,
wind to tree, root to leaf, rich scented soil
to restless deeds and grounded feet –
absolved, absorbed and softly grieved,
maternal womb to earthy tomb.
connectedness, as sweet as cake,
muddies the water of time’s parade
the stagnant mix of past and present
holds court with future’s regal arc –
time dwells in synchronous bent,
a mobius strip of dawn and dusk.
And so it seemed that I too was echoing, revisiting, or excavating an understanding, that might have existed already. Perhaps it’s the collective unconscious, with its Jungian archetypes.
I prefer to imagine the folding over of past, present and future, the creation of an accordion of time, such that movement across temporal borders is not only natural but expected. Nothing is ever lost, energy is constantly recycled, and eternity is always within our reach.
Photograph by Aitezaz Ahmed
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