Written by Kaylen Sanders.
Photo by Kaylen Sanders.
Being Black often feels like my mind is straddling past, present, and future all at once. The past never really leaves but rather hangs overhead like a shadow or a picture frame. For a young white person, segregation may seem like a concept buried many years in the past. For me, on the other hand, my own father couldn’t attend elementary school with white children until the fifth grade. The school that he attended prior was plagued by less resources, by administrative neglect. And now, today, some public schools are even more segregated than they were in the 1950s. My dad recalls trying to join his local Boys’ Club in 1965, only to be turned away because of the color of his skin. These memories of structural violence still weigh on him and the world many decades later. These memories sit inside our house with us.
The year is 1969, and white astronauts are pioneering the terrain of outer space, while many Black Americans still lack access to basic needs.
What does it mean when the violence of years past is sitting in your blood as well? Dr. Joy DeGruy offers a theory of post-traumatic slave syndrome as “a condition that exists as a consequence of centuries of chattel slavery followed by institutionalized racism and oppression,” resulting in multigenerational adaptive behaviors. While this can take positive forms such as resiliency, it also means that Black trauma may be passed down generationally due to structural, cultural, and even genetic forces. Our past is interwoven with our present.
Now we are told that the algorithms will save us when they just sacrifice more Black bodies at the altar of progress, a pulpit hewn by the same hands that lit crosses on fire.
The overarching American belief system presumes that time is a unidirectional arrow, constantly charging ahead towards a new vision of progress. It asks where we would be if not for the 13th amendment or Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education or…you get the point. However, I think of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 spoken word poem called “Whitey on the Moon,” featured in a recent episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country:
I can’t pay no doctor bills, but whitey’s on the Moon / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still, while whitey’s on the Moon / The man just upped my rent last night, ’cause whitey’s on the Moon / No hot water, no toilets, no lights, but whitey’s on the Moon.
It is a form of both present-day escapism and future-world manifestation. .
The year is 1969, and white astronauts are pioneering the terrain of outer space, while many Black Americans still lack access to basic needs. At the time, it must have felt as if white Americans were living in the year 2050. Meanwhile, Black Americans struggled to move past the horrors of the 1800s — haunted by discriminatory policies and attitudes everywhere they turned, paying taxes to a government that treated their welfare as secondary. Even today, our notion of time has us chasing an elusive future under the premise that it will be better, that it will be high-tech, that it will be safer, that it will make us happier, make us more money, make us more, more, more. And yet only some of us are invited to inhabit that future. Now we are told that the algorithms will save us when they just sacrifice more Black bodies at the altar of progress, a pulpit hewn by the same hands that lit crosses on fire.
But we must dream of the future, still. A couple of months ago, I joined a Black organizing call that opened with this question: what’s on the freedom side? The facilitator wanted to know what liberation looks like to us. The precise words escaped me, but I described growing up with the sensation that my Blackness put me in a box. The box was mental for me, yet for some it is physical; consider redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, the surveillance of Black communities. The freedom side has no boxes. It looks like generations upon generations of Black children no longer being boxed in by white supremacy. Even when the world feels heavy, my head must also be there, in this boxless world, feeling the sun on my brown skin. It is a form of both present-day escapism and future-world manifestation.
What time are we in if it is still not the time of justice?
During this year’s Allied Media Conference, three Black writers — Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Walidah Imarisha, and Alexis De Veaux — gathered to discuss the role of visionary fiction in capturing the past and conjuring a more just future. They reminded me that we are living under a regime of Western, capitalist, commodified time. These writers insist that we must literally reimagine the past to thoroughly grapple with all that has been whitewashed, stolen, covered up, or discarded because it doesn’t fit the pervasive narrative of white American progress. We have to reimagine to fully anchor the past to the present.
What resonated with me most from their conversation was the concept of time as fluid. Alexis Pauline Gumbs described a story where a contemporary Black protagonist sends letters back in time to ancestors, comforting them with knowledge that their struggles are not entirely in vain. I love that. I think every day we are writing love letters to those who came before us and those yet to come when we dare to exist and insist that this world can be transformed.
In my eyes, “now” is an illusion. To be a member of a marginalized community is to know that progress can be won and lost, blossomed and diminished. Each day I see the scars of a trauma that began when the first slave ships scraped the shores of western Africa. When yet another victim of police brutality floats across my screen, I see a familiar boy turned away from the gates of privilege and cast into the relentless shadows of prejudice.
What time are we in if it is still not the time of justice? I am thinking of ancestral accountability and accountability to the future of Blackness. I want America to reckon with both the ugliness of the past and the raw terror of the present. It might help if we consider the future as all the increments of now, adding up the yesterdays that begin as tomorrows, stitching them together like a quilt wrapped around infinity.
About the Author
Kaylen Sanders is a consultant who works in the field of education equity and sometimes writes. In her spare time, she likes eating pastries, watching coming-of-age TV shows, and getting involved in community organizing.