Moving Still: Then, Now When

Antiphony – call and response; a long tradition of Black life; a way of being and making together.

To listen to a recording of this piece

Then, now, when. What time is it? The time that I am in my bed scrolling my phone. This is a bad idea – bad sleep hygiene. I am watching my children’s stories on Instagram. This is also sometimes a bad idea because it can mean having to sit with discomfort, and to be still with it, by which I mean not commenting. I know that having access to their social media is a privilege. I know the first rule of parental preeing; never leave footprints. 

Knowing the difference between a time to move and a time to be still is a crucial skill in parenting, especially now they are in their teens and twenties – big people with their own ideas. The post on my son’s story moves me and stops me all at once, makes me sit up in bed. This app that has turned him into an old man – my son’s features but older and greyer; his voice but inflected with tones of the Caribbean. My son speaking to me as an old Jamaican – one Jamaican in particular – his grandfather. I am transfixed. The mannerisms, the cadences of speech – delight but also spook me. I call his dad to look, ask him what he sees. Immediately he says ‘wow, it’s my dad’, and we shake our heads at all the things that are possible with an app these days, including apparently, collapsing space and time. We are watching and feeling the past and the present and the future meet. Then, Now, When. 

Then, now, when. Words that locate us in time. But what even is time? In another lifetime – another when – I might study quantum physics and impress you with my answers, but now – or rather then, in August 2019, I took my curiosity about time to a series of talks and workshops at the ICA. I bought a book to go along with it –Black Quantum Futurism: Space time collapse, from the Congo to the Carolinas.  

In a chapter of this book, Ytasha Womack writes about the emotional charges that words have. I agree. As a psychotherapist who uses creative writing in my work, words – spoken and written – are important every day. She defines the word race as;

“a technology created and enforced by law and violence that we are currently dismantling”. 

Race as technology – a technology used to exploit, extract and enclose. In the book’s introduction, Rasheedah Philips points out how time is also used in this way – as a technology for exploitation, extraction and enclosure – and  how most of us take our everyday experiences of time as fact – an unalterable facet of reality. We think in hours, minutes, seconds; days months, years. Western linear time, overthrowing our other senses of time – what she calls natural time and what some people call African time, or black man time, and today, right now, I am calling black woman time. Race and time as technologies of control and exploitation; designed to control and stop our natural moving; black woman time moving. Also, ironically, designed to control and stop our being still. Black bodies worked on plantations were not authorised to be still, no matter that they were sick, old or tired. Tiredness was not authorised. The natural bodily feeling of being tired means nothing within the technology that is linear time. You work your hours. you do your time. Regardless. 

Why am I bringing time, technology and tiredness to a discussion on Black women’s experience? Because I am making several guesses about who you might be. I’m guessing many of you are black women – because although there is so much that the world can learn from the experience and knowledges of Black women, most people are still waking up to this. I’m also guessing that, in the not so distant past – maybe today, this week, this month – you have found yourself overly busy, running to keep up, feeling close to, or absolutely saturated in exhaustion. I’m guessing you have heard – and seen – black people being murdered in the street, and in their beds, and in their cars. I’m guessing this fills you with feelings; rage, grief, terror, despair. I’m guessing you feel tired; I’m guessing that the knowledge that this has been happening for so long, and will continue to happen, weighs you down. In short, I think you know what tiredness is. I imagine that you have at some point said – to yourself or another – I don’t have time for tired.

Akwugo Emejulu, in an article published this year offers us exhaustion as praxis, and as valuable knowledge. To quote, “Physical and psychological exhaustion is knowledge – because if you’re tired of the way things are that means you understand that things can be different. Through a haze of exhaustion, you glimpse another world.”

Glimpse another world. Breathe in this possibility. Another world is possible. We will return here, but for now, let’s be in now. Now it is 2020 and I am a therapist and therapy is commonly understood as a space that revisits the past – the then, the what has already happened – in order to attend to the now; to the tiredness, to the trouble, to the pain. Therapists see the past as significant, but not everyone agrees. Some – including black women who are already carrying the world on their heads – say, what would be the point in looking back then? What’s done is done, can’t be changed. I’m already tired. Why would I invest the little energy I have in what happened back then? Therapist me says that by attending to the then – to all that could not be felt, named, understood in the past – we create more space for living in the now, and for living more pleasurably. I mean pleasure here not as the absence of pain (which therapy cannot guarantee, and in my view would be wrong to aim for) but pleasure as the presence of desire. Desire is a word often associated with sex, but here used expansively, to represent life force; the energy moving in you; the energy that moves you, that makes you reach and pull and hold. I know that desire and women have a long and problematic history together. Desire synonymous with wantonness, flightiness, promiscuity; desire as shameful; desire as that hot forbidden thing that will ruin you; make a woman not respectable. As a young woman I struggled with this narrative. It affected the way I moved, the things that I felt authorised (and not authorised) to do. Which is not to say I didn’t do them anyway, but when you feel unauthorised – outlawed – it is not easy to seek the advice or support that might be needed. I ended up moving when I would have been better to be still and being still when I absolutely needed to be moving. Given these complex, conflicting stories and experiences of desire, it’s not surprising that desire sometimes gets pushed out of now into the time and space that we call when. When I have time, when I am not so tired, when it’s possible. One day when, one day when I have. Or desire as a question posed to the future; What will you be when – when you grow up, when you are rich, when you retire, when you get free? When will we get free? But is there a danger in deferring desire like this? Like the famous Langston Hughes line that Lorraine Hansberry wrote into a play; What becomes of a dream deferred / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? 

Therapeutic practice engages the then and the now, but also the when – the future. And I mean in more ways that one person’s individual recovery – as valuable as that is. I mean the therapeutic practices that also aim to change the world; to glimpse another world and make that world; to make a world from which we do not have to heal, a world with less harm; a world – dare I say – in which we don’t need as many therapists? These are abolitionist questions, crucial as we continue to insist – demand – that Black lives matter. Can we practice in ways that don’t just aim to rehabilitate, or even restore, but to transform? Practices that don’t accept harm as inevitable and focus all their attention on punishment and recovery? Abolitionist perspectives invites us to glimpse another world; to turn attention, energy, and resources toward ways of doing and being that change the conditions in which these harms keep happening; So that harm becomes less likely, less possible; so that we don’t have to invest all our resources in recovering from it. And there are those who would attempt to stop this movement by saying that ‘politics’ and therapy should be separate. Let’s be clear, separation here is itself a political decision; one that accepts that people (some people in particular) will continue to suffer these violences; will continue to be harmed, because that’s just how it is; inevitable victims; collateral damage to the status quo. A political decision that says there is nothing to be done. Not now, not then, not when, not ever.

We visit now, a particular then, that was not inevitable, but did happen. The date is 1662. A law is passed; Partus sequitur ventrum. Latin legal speak. What it means is ‘what is issued from the womb follows the womb’. What it means is that the child in the womb inherits the status of her mother. What it means is that a child born of an enslaved woman is born enslaved; is born as property, is owned by the person who owns her mother. What it means is that the womb of the Black woman is made into a factory. This is where the industrial revolution begins for real, before cotton mills in Lancashire, before the iron works in the Midlands. What it means is the de-authorising of mother-child relation. The black woman not authorised to move her own body. Not authorised to keep or care for her child. Not authorised to spend her own time. Not authorised to rest, or to speak of being tired. And blackness becomes a signifier of slave, a signifier of not free, so that black people everywhere, including those who are living free – living their lives far away from the plantations, not having (yet) to think of themselves as black – are caught up in its matrix. 

Which leads us to now. 2020. Now time has passed. Now that we have moved on, we think. Now we have gotten over. Or now we think we should have gotten over. Or now that people tell us we should have gotten over; because surely it was such a long time ago; because surely now is not then? Insisting on, and so desperate that then not be now that everything we know and see and feel that tells us otherwise must be shut down. And so now, we find people refusing to hear our experience, telling us what is not racism, what is and is not political, what does not belong where, what can and can’t be said. Worse, we start to think twice about authorising ourselves to speak, because speaking an experience of racism ends up in shocked faces; in tears; in tantrums; in awkward, tiresome conversations. When we are already tired. But because I’m here and I get to speak without interruption I’m just going to say it as it is. The year is 2020. If you are Black you are more likely to get excluded from school, have fewer educational opportunities; more likely to be stopped and searched, to be prosecuted, to receive a heavier sentence, to be unemployed; more likely to be a victim of crime, be murdered, die in custody and die in childbirth; more likely to experience worse mental health, be sectioned under the mental health act; and as we have come to know in this now of 2020, more likely to die or experience serious harm from a virus, COVID-19. Get over it? Move on? How should we get over or move on from what is still happening? If this is the now, how can we be said to be free from the then? 

This is what Saidiya Hartman names as the afterlives of slavery; what Christina Sharpe articulates as the wake. The ecological disaster that was transatlantic slavery has cut through the water and created a disturbance that is centuries long; a wake in which we are still trying not to drown. It hurts. Maybe we want to look away; explain away; explain away the statistics that show us the conditions of premature black death; explaining away that takes the form of particular stories told again and again until even we start to believe, and repeat them;

Stories of inadequacy single mothers, ill-disciplined children, lazy men, absent fathers, dysfunctional families. Stories of blame; blame queer, blame trans, blame a lack of straightness, a lack of discipline, a lack of intelligence, a lack of moral fibre, a lack of a work ethic. Narratives of Black as lack. 

It’s hard to live in (breathe in) these stories, but they are powerful narratives, too often given authority by so called scientists and researchers. Like recently the psychologist from the London School of Economics whose research concluded that Black women as a group are less attractive than other women. Madness, of course, but call it research and even nonsense can become respectable. Even research questions that centre a man’s desire as if that’s really what we need to know about, get to be taken seriously. Seriously? This knowing is so useless that it doesn’t even deserve to be called knowledge. Let’s call it what it is, as Toni Morrison advised, a distraction. Racism as distraction. Distraction, we refuse you. We move away from your puny, tiresome desire. We move towards our own desire.  

Another then. The date is 1936, Amy Ashwood Garvey – divorced now from her more famous husband Marcus, opens the Florence Mills Social Parlour at 50 Carnaby Street, London, England. A meeting place for Pan-Africanists from all over the world. Food is served. Music is played. Conversations happen. Dancing happens – dancing as its own set of conversations. If you search this history, some results seem to suggest that Amy created this space with Marcus (or that he set it up with her) but then you notice that in 1936 when this establishment  opened, Amy had been divorced from Marcus since 1922. For 14 years. Marcus has, for the last 14 years been married to her previous roommate and maid of honour. It was an acrimonious divorce. This piece of history belongs to Amy, not Marcus, but look how easily a story gets twisted because of who is considered to be authorised and who not? And maybe this seems unimportant until I feel how history has been presented to me, born in London in the 1960s. To me, 1930s London is presented as white space populated by men in bowler hats. In other words, as not me; as not black woman. And when I imagine the space that Amy made – the travels and spaces she made all around the world in fact – that imagining does something in me; opens a space; settles a space; moves me; authorises me. (Thanks to Nydia Swaby, who introduced me to Amy’s story.) 

I believe that telling our stories is important, therapeutic and world-making – not just for those Black women who are well-known, but for all of us. I believe that when we can tell those stories in Black woman time – drawing on what Gail Lewis has called the different temporal package within Black feminism – we can make the then, now and when breathe together, dance together, and work for us. To help us, we have Christina Sharpe’s call for the practice of undiscipline. Sharpe draws on the work of Sylvia Wynter – another inspiring Jamaican woman – and notes how within the ‘disciplinary’ lines of academic study, Blackness and Black people are already condemned. How will we make sense of our own knowledge – study ourselves – from within these tight enclosures? Black life is experimental; plays like jazz; creates and recreates itself by following desire to see what happens if; If I make a leap from here to there? If I mix this with that? If I dance philosophy, make history in the kitchen? If we gather around a domino table and know it as study? In the way that Fred Moten says that study is what we do with each other and black study is what happens wherever Black people are gathered. Which means when we talk together, walk, dance together, suffer together. To self-authorise a practice of undiscipline is to give ourselves permission to wander; to feel across and outside of lines, to be curious in between the lines, in the interstitial spaces where the best mixing and blending happens. 

If you practiced undiscipline, what would be in your mix?

Desire is powerful and beautiful and also vulnerable to hijack. The same systems and technologies are still being operated to extract from and exploit us – they sell us dreams to buy. We work hard for these dreams – maybe for a big house in the country, more likely for the big house in the other country to where we hope to escape. Back home, backayard; means work hard, hard work, overtime double shifts, double jobs and side hustles, in service of one day living the dream. I ask myself, as my days get fuller and my head more congested, and my body more tired, whose dream is it exactly, that I am striving to live? Time – clock time – says don’t waste me, hurry up, get it together, make it work. Says work, work, work. Black woman time says hush; says be quiet and still; says mind the ocean, says feel the waters of then, now and when as unity. As inseparable. As ongoing-ness. As the always co-existing space where we are the dreams of our ancestors; where we are living their dreams. Black woman time reminds me that her dreaming was not toward the big house, but away from. A dream of getting away; of marronage; a dream of freedom; a dream of rest; a mother dreaming a world in which her children might rest. A bit like me now, attempting to glimpse – and bring into being – that other world in which my children might rest. Rest from overwork yes, but also rest from being seen as threat, and from being murdered, and from seeing themselves murdered. So, to whoever might see me at rest and be tempted to accuse me of laziness, or not being radical, and tell me to hurry up and get on with something, I say respectfully, you are deeply mistaken. What you see here, in this now, is a woman living a dream; for the ones who can no longer breathe, for the ones whose dreams were outlawed, refused, violently denied; for the ones who wanted rest for their children then, just as you do for yours nowThen, now, when, an ever-unfolding unity of time/space in which what we do now, also happens then, and happens when and more than that, makes when.

When. James Baldwin asked, how long must we wait? Watch his face as he speaks, see how tired he is. Of course, we are tired. It’s been so long. Of course, we ask what is the distance between now and when? 

if we move with Black feminisms and Black feminist futurity the distance between now and when is not as far as we imagine. I realise now that before I understood what futurity was, I was already a futurist, which at its simplest means having a belief in the future. There are theorisations of this that I find particularly helpful in my work, e.g. Adrienne Maree Brown thinking speculative fiction as a practice of futurity. Her co-editor for Octavia’s Brood, Walidah Imarisha says;

“We are living in the ancestral imaginations of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us, or included us as enemy, fright, other.” 

Back to race as technology – imagined into being. Tina Campt discusses the grammar of black feminist futurity as;

 “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must…living the future now…striving for the future you want to see, right now, in the present.” 

And the theorisations in practice that I get to witness through the people I work with, and the futurity I see lived by you, whether or not you thought of yourself as a Black feminist. What do I mean? I mean when you were told at school that you would never amount to anything, but you lived as if you already did. When you were told that you were too dark, too old, too fat, too ugly for joy and you made joyful spaces anyway. When you were told that your children are backward, not able, unruly, unteachable and you continued to teach them anyway. When you are told that black history cannot be part of the curriculum, and you make your own curriculum and continue to live black history every day. When people mistake you for the defendant when you are the barrister. When because you are the defendant, people write you off as a bad person; a bad citizen, a no-body. And when you still get that body up in the morning and live in it, and love in it, and love with it. Love like when people scorn your sister for not being able to feed her children – say that we should not have to be responsible for feeding other people’s children – but you feed those children anyway because you believe in a future where there is no such thing as other people’s children. When you are the revolutionary mother that Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes as M(Other) – revolutionary because of the space that “other” takes in our mouths when we say it; M(Other) less as a gendered identity and more as a possible action. As a way of moving. I see you. I see your moving. I see you out there glimpsing another world and insisting it into being by living it now. I see you Black feminist futurist, making the moves you are told you cannot, should not, are not permitted to make; making moves and making those moves look good; beauty in action self-authorising your way to when we are all free.

Then, now, when. Everywhen. Everywhen, another term I took from Black Quantum Futurism. As we authorise ourselves to move now, as we bend time and author the future, we invoke and draw on this Everywhen. If I were that kind of developer, I would create the technology for an Everywhen app, so that you could see yourself as I saw my son the other day, in the then, the now and the when all at once. And I don’t need to do this, because there is no app, no technology, that will ever compare to the technology that you are. The technology that is you, that is us. We who breathe. We who breathe for the ones who can no longer breathe. We, the beautiful experiments, moving still, being then, being now, and always being and making when.         

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