Q&A with Badia Ahad and Habiba Ibrahim, editors of “Black Temporality in Times of Crisis”

Badia Ahad and Habiba Ibrahim are the editors of “Black Temporality in Times of Crisis,” a new issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly that uses crisis as a framework to explore historical and present-day Black temporalities. Contributors consider how moments of emergency shift and redefine one’s relationship to time and temporality—particularly in the material, psychic, and emotional lives of Black people. In today’s post, Ahad and Ibrahim discuss the making of this issue and what the issue can bring to academic courses and future scholarship, highlighting three articles that cover Black negotiations with specific forms of crisis. Preview the issue’s contents, including the Against the Day section, “Universities as New Battlegrounds,” available free for three months, and the editors’ introduction, made freely available; or pick up a copy.

DUP: What guided your interest in editing this special issue? What questions or problems shaped your study?

Badia Ahad, coeditor of "Black Temporality in Times of Crisis," a new issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly
Badia Ahad, coeditor of “Black Temporality in Times of Crisis,” a new issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly

A few developments led to the making of this special issue. One is directly related to our own interests in how contemporary blackness might be thought of in terms of historical, experiential, and subjective frameworks of time. Both of our most recent monographs, Black Age: Oceanic Lifespans and the Time of Black Life and Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture, center temporality as an oft-overlooked yet critical aspect of Black being. Both works engage the historical past as a mode of transformation, reclamation, and an occasion to reconsider the predominance of what Aida Levy Hussen refers to as “traumatic time.” While we acknowledged that Black temporality was marked by ongoing and overlapping moments of crises in a negative sense, it was self-evident in the body of literature, visual art, and performance we mined in our respective works that “crises” in Black life also provided the capacity for creativity, renewal, and the imagining of liberation.

A second key development was the rise of social justice movements in the years leading up to and in 2020. The unbroken ongoingness of anti-Black brutality, along with the increasing explicitness of white nationalist sentiment, guided our interest in how to account for the temporality of the present. Broadly speaking, we were interested in how the present currently operates as a framework of analysis in Black studies. In a manner now commonplace, the present has been shaped via psychoanalytic concepts of trauma and melancholia. Repetition and incalculable loss, meanings derived from these conceptual frames, endow the present with historical density, and such temporal weightiness becomes figurative of blackness itself. The present of blackness—and blackness as the present—initiates a question: How has the formation of blackness as a modern social category relied on particular schemas of time? Is blackness still knowable as such when it isn’t mired in the ongoingness of time? Although these questions arise from the most recent years of crisis, we were especially interested in a related but different question: How do we tarry with the ongoingness of anti-Black brutality while making conceptual room for numerous other structures of time and feeling that also constitute the present? This special issue explores how the exigencies of recent years—structured through the “twin pandemics” of police brutality and COVID-19—make the mode of time conspicuous. As ongoing, quick, drawn-out, or ruptured, temporality’s conspicuousness reboots our collective attempts to theorize the past and present conditions of Black life.     

By toggling between big and small structures of time, long historical patterns, and specific, localized events, the essays in this special issue insist that history matters in the face of nationalized efforts to disavow it. For many, the present-day experience of the 2010s intensified the already-palpable sense that we were living in what Saidiya Hartman has called “the afterlife of slavery”—along with the sense that afterlives are interminably long. Nested within this broad-scale afterlife was post-civil-rights-era disillusionment. Liberatory promises of the 1960s gave way to a “colorblind” discourse that disavowed the historical and structural dimensions of late-twentieth century racism. And after three decades of neoconservatism and neoliberalism converging to disempower Black communities across the United States, the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, announced the arrival of a so-called “postracial” era. From the 1970s into the second decade of the twenty-first century, colorblindness and postracialism were ideological technologies for making “history” inexpressible. In the context of such suppression, Black experiences of time—as interminable, stagnant, regressive—became a means to track specific social, cultural, political, and economic developments. Black time allows us to perceive how social processes work, along with the material, affective, and cultural influence such processes have on Black life. As the term “afterlife” suggests, Black experiences of time trouble linear and progressive schemas of historical formation. But in addition to this, Black time reveals ways of knowing that are eschewed through dominant discourse. The affective and social dimensions of time—stagnation and regression, but also the experience of counter-national temporalities—offer us a means of exploring how suppressed or disavowed aspects of life are experienced and expressed.

DUP: How do you imagine “Black Temporality in Times of Crisis” could be used in courses or as a basis for future scholarship?

Habiba Ibrahim, coeditor of "Black Temporality in Times of Crisis," a new issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly
Habiba Ibrahim, coeditor of “Black Temporality in Times of Crisis,” a new issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly

This special issue builds on a remarkable body of literature that exposes how Black life has always been in tension with normative conventions of Western (European) temporal constructs. The essays in this issue offer so many entry points for either seminars or for future scholarship. Our Introduction sets forth a provocative question (“How does crisis draw us toward the precarities, but also the possibilities, of Black life?”) that could be fruitfully explored across a range of disciplines/fields as the essays demonstrate (literary studies, media/cinema studies, visual and performance studies). This issue could be used in courses that focus on the conventions and historicity of Black cultural forms and genres—music, film, speculative fiction, the slave narrative, photographic images—and ask questions about methods for studying mass and popular culture. Across all of the essays, culture is the location of emergent experience that draws our attention toward the underlying logic and structure of time. Courses that frame Black culture through either a national or transnational lens could use this issue to consider how cultural forms are related to historical development.   

As we think of this issue’s contributions to Black literary and cultural studies, we are aware of what it offers to scholarship that intervenes in western philosophical concerns with human existence. In recent years, scholarship in Black studies has taken a turn toward questions of Black being, with examples ranging from Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, and Kevin Quashie’s Black Aliveness. Our issue draws attention to how temporality structures Black ontology. Conceptual frameworks such as “the afterlife of slavery” (Hartman), “the wake” (Sharpe), “ontological plasticity,” (Jackson), and “aliveness” (Quashie) each explore, in significantly different ways, the inextricability of temporality from conditions of embodiment, presence, reality, and various modes of social and non-social existence. Across these works, temporality is thought of as the longue durée of transatlantic slavery and colonialism, through the epistemic terms of hierarchically organized forms of life, or as the intersubjective here-and-now. Taken together, temporality is related to not just one but multitudinous registers in which to think of Black life. In this issue, Julius B. Fleming Jr.’s essay, “Anticipating Blackness: Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Time of Black Ontology,” speaks most directly to the relationship between Black time and Black being as it offers its own analytical framework, “the time of black ontology.”

DUP: What are some topics that readers can expect to find covered in the issue?

"Black Temporality in Times of Crisis," a new issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly

When we discussed the throughline of the essays in this issue, we decided to present the works in a quasi-chronological order because it evinces the narrative of Black negotiations with specific forms of crisis over historical time, across geographic spatialities, and into imagined futures. 

Sarah Stefana Smith’s “Keeping Time: Maroon Assemblages and Black Life in Crisis” weaves her personal navigation with the global pandemic and national racial unrest in 2020, petit-maroon communities in 19th century Virginia, the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, and somatic movement to form a meditation on the precarity of enslavement and emancipation through representations of flight and mobility. This essay produces a sense of warped time reflective of the warped social, political and economic conditions that structured black existence in the antebellum era and persist in our present moment. 

Similarly, Tao Leigh Goffe’s piece “Stolen Life, Stolen Time: Black Temporality, Speculation and Racial Capitalism” brings together a range of media (Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, the HBO series Watchmen, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother) to highlight how Black temporality as “a refusal to labor within the limits of history” frustrates the constraints of Western logics of time even when Black characters are not at the center of the narrative and, in some cases, completely absent. Goffe also draws on “maroon time” as a kind of freedom that takes the form of anticipation, reclamation, and imagination.  

Margo Crawford’s “What Time Is It When You’re Black” extends the conversation around “anticipation” or the “not yet” of black life. In Crawford’s essay the black vernacular term finna signals the liminal space between the trauma of the historical past and the present by which it is shaped (“the afterlife of the afterlife”). Drawing upon the poetry of Nate Marshall, Toni Morrison’s 2015 novel God Help the Child, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) and The White Card (2019), Crawford shows that “finna-tude” is not a state of black hope but a recognition of “a new kind of grammar” that signals the possibility of emancipatory black futures.

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