By Rasheedah Phillips (click here for the PDF)
The relationship between Black people, clock time, and its embodiment of Western linear time has always been contentious. Linear time, as Carol Greenhouse notes, “provides a reservoir of symbols with which the legitimacy of hierarchies can be defended and reproduced.” The entanglement of clock time and labor is pronounced in the plight of victims of chattel slavery, where enslaved Africans’ bodies
and their time, through labor, were commodified. This is a powerful demonstration of how “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.” (Giordano Nanni, 2012). Regarded as no more
human than a watch or clock, enslaved Africans, considered property, were denied full humanity under the law and thus were forbidden access to the temporal domain of their pasts. They were also forbidden access to the temporal domain of the Western progressive future, where, as Charles W. Mills observes, “[w]hites are self-positioned as the masters of their own time, as against those mastered by time.”
Practices of temporal oppression and uses of clocks, watches, and nature as instruments of surveillance, labor regulation, objectification, and punishment were perfected during slavery and persisted in different forms postliberation. Under these circumstances, clock time was transformed into what Michael Hanchard calls “racial time . . . the inequalities of temporality that result from power relations between racially dominant and subordinate groups . . . produc[ing] unequal temporal access to institutions, goods, services, resources, power, and knowledge.” This racial time was very literal. On most plantations, “the masters ha[d] complete control over the distribution of the negro’s time.” (Slavery Meeting at Colchester, Essex County Standard, January 19, 1838). As Black people sought more control over their own time and labor after the Civil War, the tropes would later morph into “negro time” and an evolution of the phrase “colored people’s time,” coassociating Black time and Black people with lateness and laziness.
Racial time was also used to catalyze and perpetuate systemic oppression, denying Black communities’ access to and agency over the temporal domains of the past, present, and future. Evolving alongside the struggle for emancipation were legacies of de facto and legalized discrimination in public spaces, housing, and land in the United States, always keeping true freedom in check. Known as slave codes, Jim Crow laws, and Black Codes, and showing up in the form of redlining and racially restrictive covenants in the real estate, these laws were commonly thought of as spatial segregation that restricted Black people’s movements through space.