Rasheedah Phillips has learned a lot of ways of looking at time.
“Time is very subjective,” explained Phillips, a Philadelphia-based Afrofuturist artist and researcher whose survey questions about time and memory are included in the new anthology Black Futures, featuring the work of more than 100 esteemed Black creatives in the U.S. and abroad.
“Time is very cultural,” said Phillips, who is also a housing attorney at Community Legal Services, the founder of The AfroFuturist Affair community and the cofounder, with her partner Camae Ayewa, also known as the artist Moor Mother, of the collective Black Quantum Futurism.
“Time is dependent on a person,” Phillips said. “It depends on a community. It depends on your location.”
In the African Diaspora alone, she explained, there are thousands of cultures, if not more, “each of them having their own cultural traditions and observations of time.” The sense of time that we have in the U.S. is Western, she continued, which is cultural, too.
Phillips, of North Philadelphia, is currently researching the impacts of time zones on marginalized people as a fellow at The New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Her survey questionnaire about time in Black Futures is an ethnographic research tool she’s been using since 2012. It appears among essays, fine art, interviews, social media posts, memes, lyrics, and other forms of expression in the acclaimed 544-page book, edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham.
Titled “Time and Memory,” Phillips’ survey includes prompts like, “How do you define the concept of time?” and “Which ancestor would you pull back into time? Do You Know Why?”
She has used different iterations of the survey here and internationally. At art installations, for example, it appears as wallpaper and visitors can write in their own answers.
Phillips said she knows she experiences time differently but didn’t want to assume that her experience was the same as everyone else. That has guided her inquiry.
“How do [people] experience time? How do they experience time in their community? How do they experience time down South?” she asks. “How do they experience time as a queer person, or as a trans person or as a Black woman vs. how a white person might experience time?”
Phillips is not alone in raising questions about the inequality of time and differences in time perception.
Rutgers women’s and gender studies professor Brittney Cooper, who authored the book Eloquent Rage, said this of time in a 2016 Ted Talk: “Well, I’ve already told you that white people own time. Those in power dictate the pace of the workday. They dictate how much money our time is actually worth. … They dictate how long it will actually take for minority groups to receive the rights that they have been fighting for.”
And, of course, the pandemic has changed time for so many of us. In April, mathematician Joseph Mazur wrote that the world was “beginning to be lost in time.”
“There is no end to guide our sense of time as it dilates, inflates, contracts, and confuses our daily routines and practices,” Mazur wrote.
For the future, Phillips explained, we need to be looking at time differently. She spoke to The Inquirer this week about time, her work, and Afrofuturism. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
I’ve been engaged in Afrofuturist work for I guess over 10 years. It’s really interesting to see it be evolved into more of a household term, or something that more people know and engage with, and to be something that has traveled beyond the internet and internet communities, or college and university communities and sort of those privileged spaces to be a space where you can see Afrofuturism on your TV, or you can see it in your sort of everyday life.
Time has a history. And our notion of the future has a history, and it’s very much connected to capitalism. It’s very much connected to colonialism. It’s connected to slavery in very particular ways. A lot of my work and research is around clarifying and uprooting those ties and connections, because it has very present-day implications.
It has implications for people who are considered time-poor, and it’s connected very much to the clients I serve at Community Legal Services, who are low-income and primarily Black women, who are losing their homes — the way that their time is snatched from them, or cut off from them, or the ways that they’re cut off from the future.
[Colonization of the] African continent or the Australian continent was mediated by time, and mediated by chronometers, and things that they had to invent — then that being used as a way to either group people as civilized depending on how they spent their time and whether or not that matched the people who were coming in and terrorizing them.
Even thinking about the Jim Crow era and segregation. We tend to really spatialize things when we’re talking about oppression, when we’re talking about discrimination, but we rarely bring in the temporal in ways that time is used to oppress people.
My partner and I opened up a yearlong community center called Community Futures Lab, where we did what we call oral futures interviews with community members who were being displaced by the [Philadelphia Housing Authority Sharswood] redevelopment project. And so I wrote a book based on that project.
I talk a lot in that book about that exact question of just how gentrification impacts memory, how it impacts time, how people are cut off from their past.
Pieces of memory were destroyed and the neighborhood has shifted, such that people don’t have that visual connection anymore to certain things. I talk a lot about murals in North Philly that are being covered by luxury developments. Murals that really depict some of the only stories and narratives about local civil rights heroes.
Being able to build time as a community depends on being able to access your past. Looking at how these narratives about North Philly — as it being poor and bad and full of crime became a justification for why the community was then redeveloped — that [story] also left out this narrative how the community came to be this way.
All the beautiful things that exist there now, that’s also left out of the narrative. The people who live there now, the artists who live there now, the community leaders who live there now, the people who are working to make the community better now. When a community is being moved into the future of the government’s vision, they get left out of that vision or that ability to shape what that future looks like for that community or for themselves.
I know people are already doing this. They’re reevaluating the fluidity of time, the objectiveness of time, the connection to time as labor, time as money, in everyday conversation. These Zoom calls and folks having to be at home and grapple with the fact that the work-life balance is obliterated — if there ever was a work-life balance — and that your work time is flowing into your home time.
Maybe these things all didn’t always have such neat categories in the first place. If, under these circumstances, those things can become intermeshed, then maybe they always could have. And then maybe there’s other configurations of how we can do these things.
Time is used to punish people. Time is used to oppress people. Time is used to create severe inequities.