Parts of this essay were first published in the Critical Legal Thinking blog as part of the ‘Our Favourite CRT’ series curated by Kojo Koram and Yvette Russell. The aim of the series was to reflect on what different Critical Race Theorists teach us about the world we live in. In the initial post, I focus specifically on Baldwin’s 1979 address at Berkeley [See: James Baldwin at Berkeley, also below]. I have always found Baldwin’s insight into the nature of the world we live in quite unsettling. And I mean this in a good way. We think of many things as settled, despite the fact that the evidence of our senses tell us that they are definitely not settled. We think of land as property, as always having been property, as always being property… now and forever more. We think of the human as an individual body. When it is obvious the human thrives most in relationships – platonic or otherwise. Thus, both Birhane and Gordon, suggest that the human is relational. I think, however, that one of the most intractable ideas we have, one of the most difficult concepts to dislodge, is the presumed fragmentation and linearity of European time.
We think of time as moving us forward. Therefore, time can be cut into neat fragments of sectors that we are now past. Postcolonial, post-structural, post-modern, post-feminist, post-racial. But what if time was cyclical? Or what if time was stagnant and humanity had the option to move through it? If we had the relational will to do so and not repeat past patterns? This toolification of time is reflected in Mbiti’s scholarship when he argues that African conceptualisation of time is usually connoted as ‘time-for’ or ‘time-to’ or ‘time-of.’ That is, time is not merely an abstraction but is used to mark events. Events put in motion by human beings. So how can we get over what is not over? How can we move past what we have refused to put to an end? According to Cilliers, African time is a ‘spiral that includes both linear and cyclical dimensions.’ He posits:
‘Could it be said that Western understandings of temporality either become fixated with the (guilt and/ or glamour of the) past, or endeavour to escape to the (planning and/or developing of the) future? That it could in fact lose out on the promise of the presence?’
In other words, European time is so pre-occupied with getting ‘post the past’, that it loses sight of how entrenched the past is in the present, and as such we that live in European linear time are devoid of all will to work for a different future. Thus St Augustine of Hippo spoke of the need to focus on the contemporaneous, the now, in our understanding of time: ‘a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future.’
This preoccupation of European linear time is highlighted when Alana Lentin talks here about how though post-colonial suggests a time demarcation – the end of colonisation, but actually both the colonial and postcolonial co-exist and continue to exist within each other… ‘a time present of things past.‘ European linear time makes us think of progress as inevitable with its passage. In the words of Martin Luther King, ‘“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.’ Human beings do not exist in fragments of time.
This is why some scholarship seems prophetic, when the authors take an accurate historical lens into their subject matter to describe how time returns. There are ebbs and tides to history, empires rise and fall, and we carry history within us.
In the words of James Baldwin:
“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
Yes, we carry history within us:
History lives on
in our bodies
in our bones
in our dreams
in the darkness.
History is not a moment that passes.
Drifting off with the winds of time.
The time always returns.
I call myself a child of this world of empire. The colony I was born in bore recent witness to British district officers who met with one of my grandfathers. My other grandfather was schooled by Scottish missionaries. Colonial anthropologists and sociologists took intrusive photographs of the women of my family. My mother marched at an independence day parade… a parade to mark the removal of the physical signs of empire, while its puppets and economic as well as epistemological machinery remained… like a spectre at the feast, keeping the power in place… out of sight. Out of sight. The postcolonial that was not post-colonial.
It was later in life that I was introduced to writing that made sense of this incongruence of linear time. James Baldwin was one of these unsettling writers. Baldwin’s writing, with its eloquence, clarity of thought and startling insight is inexpressibly broad in its reach. It is no surprise that his speech at Berkeley is one of my favourite things to listen to. It is often the lens through which I parse the postcolonial writings that first opened my eyes to new worlds of inquiry that actually offered a realistic path out this present darkness and not just suggestions of the best way to stumble around in it. In his speech at Berkeley, Baldwin alludes to the limitations inherent in the use of the English language by the Black writer – a language whose lexicon places the Black writer outside of its assumptions. I think of this observation as quite similar to how a Black African woman lawyer wrestles with the English language. Colonial language emerges in this sense as a colonial gift and the language of the rule of law, but never the language of freedom.
‘to be born into the English language is to realise that the assumptions upon which the language operates are his enemy’
The most startling insight Baldwin makes in this speech I call ‘an unsettling of time’ which has led me to the observations I made above, especially as regards our understandings of the post-colonial. Because if we are told that colonialism is over, then colonialism is over. But how do we get over what is not over? In his speech, Baldwin suggests that the logics of enslavement of Black people in the United States of America are still alive. But by fragmenting time into distinct parcels we fail to properly address what is current in the correct historical context. A time present of things present, becomes a time of imagined present leading to fictional future. A world not yet free of its past.
I want to try and shift a certain assumption… Instead of speaking about the civil rights movement, let us pretend that I stand before you as a witness to and a survivor of the latest slave rebellion… The legality of this country… has never had anything to do with its former slaves, we are still governed by the slave codes. When I say a slave rebellion, I mean what is called a civil rights movement was really insurrection…
In this same manner, colonial logics still govern the colonies and children born into empire. For children of empire, everywhere we go colonisation follows us. Every land we stand on is colonial ground. Which brings me to another insight of Baldwin’s speech, a question – what happens to the children of empire, the children of the slave machine, when the machine runs on the same logics but in different ways? What happens to the children when they become surplus to requirements? What happens to the children of European linear time?
A whole lot of things we used to do, we ain’t needed for no more… on the other hand we are here.
Thus, children of empire, children of the enslavement machine, become disposable, become the things that the machine fears, become a threat just by existing. So, they are left to drown once again in hostile waters, they are confined once more to the modern-day plantations of the Global South and the housing projects in the USA. The time returns. On the other hand, we are here.
Baldwin then returns to what is a popular refrain in his work – the condition of being Black in this world, this wretched earth, this epistemic creation, this present darkness that has been produced by a particular vision of what it means to be human. A vision of humanity from which most of the world has been excluded. Or in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘the defining feature of being drafted into the Black race is the inescapable robbery of time …
Every White person in this country… knows one thing. They may not know… what I want, but they know they would not like to be Black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know…When Americans talk about progress, they mean how fast I become White, that is a trick bag, they know perfectly well I can never become White,… there is an irreducible difficulty…
They know they would not like to be Black here… not here, not this wretched earth. What is left then? What hope lies in this, this way of seeing the world that troubles our understanding of language, of time and of humanity? What hope lies in this double desperation? A desperation that impels us to hold on to this epistemic creation and on the other hand a desperation to let go of it? What do we have to lose?
When you try to slaughter a people, and leave them with nothing to lose, you created somebody with nothing to lose. And if I aint got nothing to lose what are gonna do to me? We have one thing to lose, that is our children, and we have never done that yet… after all we haven’t done that yet…
In listening to this speech by Baldwin, I am often left with an odd sense of hope that arises from the total unsettling of everything I have known and have been told to be true. Seeing the world differently means that we can live in hope that this present darkness may possibly not reproduce itself. Maybe not in my lifetime, but maybe for the next generation, freedom may finally be brought home. After all we haven’t lost our children yet… Which is why I designate myself a decolonial scholar. This is also why I argue that resistance to decolonial thought is also a failure of imagination… an inability to conceive of a world and a reality, a time radically different from the one we have now, without the structures and oppressions and designs that keep this present darkness afloat. A different world for our children. A time present of things future. Until then… we are still governed by the slave codes.
Cilliers, Johan. “The Kairos of karos: Revisiting notions of temporality in Africa.” Stellenbosch Theological Journal 4, no. 1 (2018): 113-132
Mbiti, John S. “African religions and philosophies.” (1972)