The Nowness of Black Chronopolitical Imaginaries in the Afro/Retrofuture



In her third contribution to The Funambulist, North Philly-based attorney, activist and afrofuturist artist Rasheedah Phillips continues to share with us some keys to fundamentally revolutionize the way we approach time and forever part from its colonial linearity.

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“Untitled.” Artwork part of the Black Space Agency Series by Black Quantum Futurism (2018)

The relationship between Black people in the Americas and the dominant Western linear time construct has always been fraught. Simultaneous to the advancements in technology, science, and economics that would come to forge our present day notions of linear time and the future, one can trace the significant events on the timeline of colonization of the African continent, the TransAtlantic slave trade, slavery in the North and South Americas and beyond, and its continuing aftermath of systemic racism and structural inequities. Such colonialist, imperialist projects could not have been successful without the use of time and temporal oppression, with time being what Sociologist Barbara Adam calls “a most effective colonizing tool” and what Jeremy Rifkin calls “the primary socializing tool.” (Time, 2004). Historian Giordano Nanni similarly observes that “the rise of capitalism and the work-clock […] went hand-in hand: time became a quantifiable measure of exchange-value in the marketplace for trading in the commodity of human labour, the currency in which the workers’ lives — their time, reified — was bought and sold.” (The Colonisation of Time, 2012).

Nowhere was that more evident than in the plight of victims and survivors of chattel slavery, where their bodies as well as their time through labor were used as commodities and forms of currency. My recent research through Slave Narratives held in the U.S. Library of Congress yields hundreds of references by formerly enslaved Africans on the use of time and clocks by slavemasters to attempt to regulate every waking moment of their lives, as well as the times they were allowed to sleep and rest. Across many narratives, interviewees recounted how they were made to wake up between 3 or 4 o’clock AM, usually by the the master’s blowing of a horn or ringing a bell. They were often made to work until or past sundown, some interviewees recalling working regularly until 10 PM. This control over the temporal domains of enslaved Africans extended into times of birth, times of death, and even the “time” of emancipation and liberation. As “ex-slave” Thomas Ash shares:

I have no way of knowing exactly how old I am, as the old Bible containing a record of my birth was destroyed by fire, many years ago, but I believe I am about eighty-one years old* If so, I must have been born sometime during the year, 1856, four years before the outbreak of the War Between The States* Uty mother was a slave on the plantation, or farm of Charles Ash, in Anderson county, Kentucky, and it was there that I grew up.” (Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 5, 1936)

Seen as no more human than the watch or clock, enslaved Africans, and post-emancipation Black Americans were forbidden access to the temporal domain of their pasts, as well as the temporal domain of the Western progressive future. A newspaper ad from The Era in 1882, for example, shows that Black people were on par with “cuckoo clocks and other worn-out novelties” in the minds of white civil society:

Even segregation in Jim Crow America, commonly thought of as spatialized, was just as much a project of temporalized segregation of Black people from white people. Newspapers during that time period, for example, listed tables of times when Blacks could access certain public spaces, such as schools or theaters, versus the normal times for white people to access public spaces.

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“Progress’ Untold Story.” Artwork part of the Black Space Agency Series by Black Quantum Futurism (2018).

For these reasons, the future as constructed by white dominated Western society has been simultaneously a dangerous temporal domain and a potent space of resistance and vision for Black people. In an 1852 speech critiquing the hypocrisy of the United States’ Independence Day, Frederick Douglas stated that “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” Long before gaining independence from chattel slavery, Black people understood that, contrary to the messages of the Declaration of Independence, white people were not committed to a liberated, equitable and accessible future for all. Although the United States settler colonial project is often referred to as one successfully colonizing space, it also necessarily involved a conquering of the temporal domain of the future. In A Republic in Time (2008), for instance, Thomas W. Allen covers in details how early 19th century political writers such as John O’Sullivan and leaders like Thomas Jefferson actually worked to emphasize “America’s place in time rather than space.” Barbara Adam similarly observes that “colonization with time has been achieved with the aid of standard time, time zones and world time, on the one hand, and with the globalization of industrial time and its associated economic values as common-sense norm, on the other.” (Time, 2004)

Thus, as I wrote in “Organize Your Own” (2016), civil rights and Black liberation movements have always needed to reappropriate notions of time and temporality that hacked dominant Western linear time. These movements must steal back time in order to create visions of the future for marginalized people who are typically denied access to the temporal mode of the future. As Kodwo Eshun writes in “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” (The New Centennial Review, 2003), “by creating temporal complications and anachronistic episodes that disturb the linear time of progress,” Black futurist imaginaries “adjust the temporal logics that condemned black subjects to prehistory.” In order to change the linear fatalistic future that Black people were told they did not belong to, Black people have had to actively and forcefully fight for space on the collective timeline.

In my creative projects, in particular through Black Quantum Futurism (BQF), advocacy work, and civic engagement as a resident, I focus on North Philadelphia as an active site of Black futurist liberation that has forged and reified its own temporality in the midst of hostile visions of the futures of the low-income, marginalized Black communities concentrated within its boundaries.

In a BQF recent exhibition called “All Time is Local” we consider time’s intimate relationship to space and locality through a text, object, and video installation. Including select pieces from our Dismantling the Master’s Clock, Temporal Disruptors, and Black Space Agency series, the works meditate on the complex, contested temporal and spatial legacies of historical, liberatory Black futurist projects based primarily in North Philly. Some of these projects, like Progress Aerospace Enterprises, have been all but forgotten, while others still stand and persist, such as Progress Plaza, Berean Church, and Zion Gardens. Others still, like Berean Institute, have monuments at the sites where they once stood, while other monuments and murals commemorating these legacies have been covered or removed by luxuryand student housing. In spite of the status of the physical remnants of many of these Black futurist projects, their implications stretch backward and forward in the afrofuturist timescapes undergirding North Philly. It is a temporality that challenges exclusionary narratives of North Philly painting the residents in the area as complicit in their own poverty and disinvestment, and thus deserving of a gentrification that will wipe out the past and move the community into the future of the government’s visions. BQF works to recover and amplify the historical memory of these autonomous Black communal space-times embedded in North Philly.

As mentioned earlier, one of the Black futurist projects we explore is Progress Aerospace Enterprises (PAE). Based in North Philadelphia during the 1960’s, Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, a civil rights leader and minister at Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church, established PAE days after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. PAE was one of the first Black-owned aerospace companies in the world. With the moon landing being seen as one of the ultimate milestones of progress of western society and a quintessential symbol of humankind’s arrival into “the future,” Sullivan stated in an interview that “when the first landing on the moon came, I wanted something there that a black man had made.” PAE had strong connections to the Civil Rights and Black liberation movements, affordable housing, economic stability, the April 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act, and the space race.

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“Black Astrologers Predict the Future.” Arwork part of the Black Space Agency Series by Black Quantum Futurism (2018).

Sullivan also founded the Zion Gardens Apartments affordable housing project with members of his church, purchasing the building from the owner after learning that Black applicants had been denied housing there based on their race. He also organized boycotts, workers’ strikes, and community police boards. With members of his church, he founded Progress Plaza (the first Black owned supermarket plaza that still exists today) Progress Garment Factory, Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc., Zion Investment Association, and other innovative organizations and programs around the country and world. Throughout all of his organizations and at PAE in particular, Rev. Sullivan emphasized hiring of women and young Black unskilled laborers and provided them with training opportunities and jobs in engineering and building parts for NASA and, controversially, weapons for war.

Although Rev. Sullivan was critiqued by anti-capitalists and the more radical Black liberation movements in Philadelphia, his futurist vision of progress in the Progress Movement was nonetheless inclusive and innovative for its time. His co-opting of the “progress” narrative and usage of the “future” in slogans were specific forms of temporal reclamation. As Helga Nowotny notes, “temporal control is symbolized by the idea of progress, of economic boom” (Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, 1994). Sullivan seemed to grasp the close associations between temporal control, sustainable Black communities existing within the U.S. imperialist project, and the notion of linear progress well. The technology built at PAE and through other Rev. Sullivan projects seemingly allowed for a hacking into future histories where Black people had already been largely erased — such as in the space race — and helped to ensure our appearances in those histories as they play out on the linear, progressive timeline. Or, as Eshun puts it, “chronopolitically speaking, these revisionist historicities may be understood as a series of powerful competing futures that infiltrate the present at different rates” (“Further Considerations on Afrofuturism”, 2003).

During that decade, the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements and space race would collide, with a lot of resistance to the space race from the Black community, such as the Poor People’s Campaign March at Cape Canaveral. Black leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Eldridge Cleaver commented on the race to land on the moon, juxtaposed to the neocolonialism and urban renewal causing displacement of entire Black communities. In a 1966 speech Dr. King remarked that “there is a striking absurdity in committing billions to reach the moon where no people live […] while the densely populated slums are allocated miniscule appropriations,”and ended his speech questioning “on what scale of values is this a program of progress?” MLK could not determine a sense of progress where Black people had not yet achieved racial justice and social equity. Reflecting on the archives of Black newspapers and magazines like Jet and Ebony, and even national news publications reveals widespread critiques of the lack of diversity in NASA employees, and the destruction and displacement of Black communities in order to build subsidized housing for NASA employees. Partly in response to such critiques, NASA created programs that designed and utilized spaceship materials in “urban” housing, as well as campaigns to increase diversity in hiring.

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“Untitled.” / Artwork part of the Black Space Agency Series by Black Quantum Futurism (2018).

Meanwhile, destruction, segregation, and displacement of Black communities across the United States (the space race on the ground) led to riots and uprisings around the country during the 1960’s, including North Philly. Columbia Avenue, now known as Cecil B. Moore Avenue after the late Philadelphia civil rights attorney and activist, was the site of race riots and uprisings in 1964 that destroyed a once vibrant, multiethnic community with a strong economic base — the reverberations of which continue to echo throughout that community in 2019. In present day, gentrification, racialized segregation, and targeted disinvestment has disrupted the landscape, vibrancy, and texture of the neighborhood, forcing its memories and residents to the edges of the city.

As a housing attorney serving low-income Philadelphians over the past 10 years, I am often in a position to reflect on the ways that systemic oppression and racism have often caused us to recede backwards in time, or for time to stand still in certain areas, locked in temporal vortices. As the poorest of the larger cities in the U.S., the present realities of housing for low-income Black people and people of color living in Philadelphia are not much different today than those that existed during Rev. Leon Sullivan and Cecil B. Moore’s time, the same spatial and temporal inequalities that were catalysts for the eruption of the Columbia Avenue riots in 1964. Gentrification is ravaging our communities. A 2019 study published by National Community Reinvestment Coalition showed that from 2000 to 2013, due to rapidly rising rents, property values, and taxes, more than 12,000 African Americans in Philadelphia moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods. As the report notes, “the large number of neighborhoods that gentrified, and the number of displaced residents, rank Philadelphia among the worst cities for black displacement.”

These and other instances of structural inequity disproportionately impact the communities that make up North Philadelphia, where a high percentage of the City’s poor, Black and Hispanic populations live in racially-concentrated poverty. We not only have a poverty crisis impacting our city’s most vulnerable residents, but we also have a race equity problem impacting Black residents’ access to housing. Beyond the damage to individuals and families who are thrust into poverty and homelessness, disruptive and forced displacements unravel the fabric of a community.

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Documentation of Erasure of Florie Dotson Mural. / Communal Memory, photos by Rasheedah Phillips, 2017-2019.

Recently I protested against and documented the destruction of communal memory of local North Philly community activist Florie Dotson, as an 18-year-old mural dedicated to her memory and the Civil Rights Movement gets completely covered by a luxury townhouse. Eerily, the mural depicts a scene protesting lack of access to affordable housing. Public art, monuments, and murals, whether formally commissioned by an institution or informally created by the community, are constantly destroyed and erased all over Philadelphia, then replaced by condominiums and other luxury housing. This tends to be particularly true of murals depicting Black historical events. The Dox Thrash mural, for example, dedicated to the legacy of the pre-Civil rights, Sharswood-based artist and activist Dox Thrash, was destroyed on two occasions; ironically by Department of Housing and Urban Development when it was located on the side of his deteriorating house and most recently the Dox Thrash mural at 16th Street and Girard Avenue was about 3/4 covered by luxury condos. The Dox Thrash home recently sold at Sheriff’s sale, despite the best efforts of local activists, students, and even descendants of another community activist who had owned the home. Other local Black women historians recently uncovered the destruction and removal by developers of a historical marker at the former North Philly home of Black Harlem Renaissance writer Jessie Redmon Fauset.

Housing and cultural displacement are usually framed in terms of spatial inequality and displacement or erasure from location. However, hierarchies of time, inequitable time distribution, and uneven access to safe and healthy futures inform intergenerational poverty in marginalized communities in some of the same ways that monetary wealth passes between generations in privileged communities. Sociologist Jeremy Rifkin says that “temporal deprivation is built into the time frame of every society,” where people living in poverty are “temporally poor as well as materially poor.” (Time Wars, 1989).

Inevitably, marginalized Black communities are disproportionately impacted by both material, spatial, and temporal inequalities in a linear progressive society. The implications of time and of space in gentrification, displacement, and redevelopment are integrated into the pre-established temporal dynamics of the impacted community, layered over and within the communal historical memory and the shared idea of the future(s) of that community. Nested within those layers are individual, subjective temporalities and the lived realities of the residents, often at odds with the linear, mechanical model of time on which and its external spatial-temporal constructs are etched.

But as Nanni points out, “time has long played a role as one of the channels through which defiance towards established order can be manifested” (The Colonisation of Time, 2012). By exploiting those temporal tensions, there are several opportunities to develop practical strategies for achieving Black temporal autonomy and spatial agency. Some of these strategies including unearthing afro/retrofuturist technologies and quantum time capsules buried by our forebears.