An Examination of Colored People Time

By Myles Johnson

“How much time do you want for your progress?" - James Baldwin

“Just five more minutes.”

We are late. The world is desperate to rush my friend as he gets ready, but he refuses to be anything but slow and steady. It’s in his flesh. He manifests excuses as he patiently rubs oil into his brown skin in order to make it gold. I remind him we were supposed to be there ten minutes ago, and he tries his best to pretend to care, but we know he does not because baby boy has to look and feel good because he’s stepping out in the bad, cold world. I must wait because he is beautiful and precious, and the cruel world is something to prepare for.

“I’m almost done. I promise!”

From a certain perspective, this is a fulfilled stereotype. The stereotype that black people can’t seem to arrive on time anywhere. It is the stereotype that black people for whatever reason can’t seem to take anything serious enough to commit to a time to experience an event. I watch my friend get ready as he puts oil in between his naps that hold the history of the burning of Black Wall Street, the middle passage, and trails that were filled with tears and blood. He must meditate on the fact that he is here and daring to move forward, I think. He is reveling in what his ancestors did not get to find joy in. He has the luxury of self-reflection and stillness. And coconut oil on skin and a mirror.

“Calm down. I’m practically ready.”

While I wait for my friend, I think of how African people must think of time. I think if we have it all wrong about time and if we’ve, as people that have descended from Africa, adopted domination’s idea of life and concept of time. Time how we know it is such a capitalistic invention. It is what we give away to companies for money. It is the only true thing a living person owns, but we split it up and give it away for profit, commitments, and social expectations. However, surely, people who came here as slaves, whose grandparents were slaves, and couldn’t envision freedom for themselves or their child, had a different perception of time. John Mbiti’s African time theory, though highly contested, is still worthy to consider. Mbiti’s examination of the Bantu tribe of central and eastern Africa and his resulting theorizing of African time: time is dyadic, only existing in the past and the present. Mbiti suggests that, as evidenced by their lack of language for events in the distant future, the complete absence of a numerical calendar, the African perception of time has “a long past, a present and basically no future.” This perception must not just birth a different perception of time, but a different perception of life. In America, you are and were born and greeted like a business with a record, with paper, and even a number. This can’t be natural to the African person, I think. Being born in pre-colonial Africa must have been more of a spiritual ritual than an establishment of a business. We must not have seen ourselves as businesses, but a link to something infinite. And how do you rush infinity?

“Hold up!”

He’s dusting himself off and re-thinking his outfit. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with the passing moments. He laughs at the minutes as they dance by. He watches them leap over his head. I have a dreadful thought. Black people must not respect this construct of time because it always seems to trick us. The minutes taunt him, but he does not submit to urgency. This quick moment becomes pregnant with possibility concerning the black person and their relationship with time; I realize it just might mean nothing because time has always deceived black people. We believe we have overcome domination practices of the past, but then tyranny in an orange costume gets elected to run the state. We believe we’ve been freed from slavery, then we realize it has simply transformed into the industrial prison complex. We watch lynchings of black bodies not disappear but evolve into executions by police officers. It is a cruel game to believe you are passing time, just to realize you’ve been on pause.

My friend grabs his keys and moves down the hallway. I realize how being a people that believed themselves to be going forward and passing through time just to realize that they’re still at the same moment must inform their relationship with time. To me, it validates our rejection of it. It makes sense to take your time when so many things in your life and history insinuate it doesn’t exist. I imagine, walking through a hallway to leave a building, but each exit door simply leading to another hallway, not outside, must inform one’s relationship with progression.

We arrive at the art show and my friend was right. I have no sense of feeling late or early. There was no need to rush. I’m grateful to observe the creations on the wall. I’m grateful to experience infinity for five minutes. I’m grateful to not have such a black and white relationship with time, but something more colored.


Myles E. Johnson is a writer located in Atlanta, Georgia. His work spans between critical and personal essays, children’s literature and speculative fiction. Johnson focuses on black and queer identities, and specifically, the intersection of the two. Johnson’s work has been featured in Bitch Media, NBCBLK, Huffington Post, Out Magazine and The Guardian.

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