Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to the takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. This Saturday Black communities around the country will be observing Juneteenth with pageants, parades festivals, and family gatherings. For all this celebration, Juneteenth is not an uncomplicated holiday because Juneteenth not only celebrates freedom, it also commemorates theft. The theft of two full years when Black people in Texas remained enslaved despite the fact that the emancipation proclamation had legally granted them freedom.
Juneteenth is about what is gained, but it is also about what was lost, time, and time matters. It matters in ways that are racialized and radicalized. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Explaining why we can't wait as he spoke of "the fierce urgency of now". King said in 1967, "In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late." Or turn to the words of scholar Brittney Cooper, who makes this claim about time in her 2019 Ted Talk.
Brittney Cooper: We Black people have always been out of time. Time does not belong to us. Our lives are lives of perpetual urgency.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does all of that mean? Let's just look at a few examples. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw an already significant life expectancy gap widen even further. In just six months in 2020 Black men lost three years of life expectancy, time. Let's also look at Black labor. At the turn of the century, there were codes, laws that made it illegal to rest, illegal to take time off, and then think about Juneteenth. This holiday exists because, for two years, Black people in parts of Texas were kept in bondage even when, as a matter of law, they should have been free two years stolen from Black people after all the decades and centuries of time that had already been stolen by slavery itself. When we hear people like Congresswoman Maxine Waters insists that she is reclaiming her time
Maxine Waters: Reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time.
Steve Mnuchin: Several times, when we were doing our--
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's an act of rebellion of freedom to control one's time is to resist.
Maxine Waters: Reclaiming my time.
Jeb Hensarling: The time belongs to the gentlelady from California.
Maxine Waters: Let me just say to you, thank you for your compliment about how great I am, but I don't want to waste my time on me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here to talk more about race and time is professor Brittney Cooper. Professor at Rutgers University and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Brittney, always so great to have an opportunity to talk to you.
Brittney Cooper: Hi Melissa. Good to talk to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've been spending a lot of time with your 2019 TedTalk on time. Let me play one more time.
Brittney Cooper: Sure.
For if time had a race, it would be white. White people own time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, expand on that.
Brittney Cooper: I was being provocative, but essentially trying to say that white people, particularly during the era of European exploration and colonization decided that Black people were not a part of history. They made these huge philosophical claims like Africa is no historical part of the world and that everything that happened where Black folks lived was prehistoric and therefore not particularly significant.
They offered a concept of time that was really about their own desires for power, which meant that for instance, when they sailed across the ocean and took land from indigenous people, what they were essentially asserting is that everything that had happened before Europeans showed up, didn't matter. That's an argument about time.
I also liked the way that George Lipsitz puts it in a more recent iteration where he says, "Look, white people act-- I'm paraphrasing, he says white people act like they own time because when Black people make claims about, "We want freedom, we want freedom now," white people are like, "Well, just hold on. Let's be gradual, slow down. All of that is about saying that they get to control the pace at which Black people are included in the democratic experiment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think me that, that aspect, that idea of wait, pause, is part of what makes this Juneteenth moment so painful that on the one hand, it is that celebration of freedom, but it's also like y'all two more whole years after everything else that was stolen. When I think of what was lost in those two years, I feel like we have to really let that sink in.
Brittney Cooper: Look, there were Black people who didn't live to see the end of that two years. Black people who were legally free, who died under conditions of enslavement because somebody simply callously refused to tell them. When we think about the way the simplicity of white racial devastation in Black lives, that simply the withholding of information makes the difference between whether you are in control of your will, your body, your life, your time, or someone else is, it's absolutely staggering. It deserves for us to take a breath and to really sit with the profundity of that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with Alma Adams earlier this week, representative Alma Adams about the delay occurring in the USDAs meant to be payout for debt relief for Black farmers. It's been delayed now by the courts. Again, I was thinking about this issue of time, how many more acres of land will be lost because of time.
Brittney Cooper: That's right. Look, I was infuriated when I saw these farmers have waited forever. When we think about the fact that so much of black people's contribution and labor to the country has been in the space of agriculture and that farmers were discriminated against by the USDA, that this was the government finally admitting that they did something wrong and that they owed redress and then 12 conservative white farmers could, could slow that up.
Even the government acting on behalf of Black people can be stopped by politically motivated judges. Just barely enough, just a little bit over what it takes to have a football team can stop the flow of progress. That's entirely too much power to have. It makes me think even politically when we-- like this, is why I'm so mad sometimes at the way that Joe Manchin wields power, because if it doesn't occur to him that one white man should not be able to determine whether Black people have a secure form of participating in democracy or not, but that's this incredible white ability uniquely to slow down time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to think about another aspect of lost time, or stolen, but I want to think really specifically about this pandemic and the effect of the lost time relative to education and particularly this gap which had already existed between students in schools with a lot of resources and students in schools with very few resources. We know that also tends to be racialized and it widened so dramatically over the past two academic years. I'm just wondering about how we even begin to think about reclaiming that time and creating some time justice for those young people.
Brittney Cooper: It's a really good question. I'm not sure that I have the solution, but what I think, look, I had a brief stint as a middle school reading teacher before I went on to become an academic. One of the things we knew at the time was that for every year that a kid falls behind in terms of reaching their reading benchmarks, it takes them two years to make that time up. When we're talking about two years of lost time, we're really talking about four years of lost time.
I think that we've got to have a full-court press here to say, we've got a resource schools more, we've got to figure out how to give people access to the digital tools and resources that they need. I also think though that we've got to figure out a different pipeline. Maybe it becomes the case that folks-- that we think about education on an extended timeline and so what does it mean to say that, we'll pay for the community college, we'll pay for some portion of your undergraduate education and that we'll pay for those benefits beyond the initial amount of time that it would have taken you to get through K through 12. We'll add an additional two years onto that.
Some of this has to be, I think, a broader cultural shift about us not stigmatizing this winner-take-all process that's about overachievers that says, there'll be a linear end to, you go through K through 12, you go through college, you make it into the middle class. It's such a limiting narrative. It never worked for Black people to begin with. I do think that all of the kids that graduated from high school, in this timeframe and started college because they've had to take gap years and all of this, and I've had such disruption, I think they're going to show us what it means to redefine what you do with this life stage break that none of us asked for it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate that. You make that point that when time doesn't work for Black folks in a particular way, it usually means it is problematic, oppressive in these broader ways as well and so Addressing it is good for us all in important ways. Let's talk about reclaiming our time. In this moment when work and home life have blurred, when the hours that people put in are so much longer, how can we begin to think about reclaiming our time?
Brittney Cooper: My favorite quote from the Maxine Waters conversation with Steve Mnuchin is when she said, "You forget that when you are on my time, I can reclaim it." I think that that assertion of, "Hey, white folks calendars aren't the only calendars that matter, are important." One of the places I actually see this happening is the way that workers and essential workers and laborers in minimum wage labor are not rushing back to jobs that devalue their time structurally. They're like, "Wait, we're going to take this government half a funded sabbatical." It's not really that, but the government actually doing something right to take care of its citizens and we're going to think about where we want to be. I love that because when--
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love it.
Brittney Cooper: When do folks who work minimum wage jobs to actually get the time to take a beat and say, "How do I want to go about the rest of my life?" I think that that's a reclamation of time. I think that's also why you're seeing such anger on the right, about, "How dare these folks not go back into these terrible jobs with poor benefits and even worse pay?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Doesn't it feel like those Black codes that said, "If you're not employed by the white man, then you can be incarcerated?" I just keep feeling like the underlying source is, "Why won't these folks just go back and work these jobs that don't even bother to pay a living wage?"
Brittney Cooper: Absolutely. We're continually dealing with a labor system that gets its prototype and its blueprint from the exploitation of Black labor in the sense that Black people are supposed to be working all the time, but also that Black people and increasingly brown people, that we're all supposed to be working so that white people can lead lives of ease, and that at any point that we disrupt that, I've been reading slave narratives, just as part of my own Juneteenth commemoration and folks talked about the harsh punishments when they didn't get up for work quickly but the thing that I loved is that even during periods of enslavement, sometimes white people were like, "Look, I'm going to just go on and take this snap [laughs] and I'll deal consequences."
The consequences were terrible for them but I think that part of-- they didn't mandate for us is to do like Trisha Hershey says, and then that ministry, which is take the nap, take the day off, take the paid time off, don't rush back to these terrible jobs. Put the government in a position where it has to negotiate-- where it forces these businesses to raise their wages. Every state isn't going to do that some of them are just going to strip these benefits but I do think that these workers are forcing the conversation. I just think that's so important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, listen, you just revolutionized my whole thought about planning for future Juneteenth events. No more having to cook all day, I think we should just put out red, black, and green mats and say, "Listen, Black folks are taking a nap today, we'll get back with you on June 20."
Brittney Cooper: That's right, we were reclaiming our two and a half years that you stole, and all the other things that you stole. I also wanted to say to one of the quotes that keeps me anchored when I think about this because often Black people are like, "We need to be grinding. They sleep we grind." All of this stuff and it's like, A, reject that but B, James Baldwin is one of the most trenchant thinkers on this, and in his 1980s book, The Price of the Ticket, he says, "Look, how much time do you want for your progress?" That is the thing that I think that Black people have to start thinking about. We have to reclaim time by saying, "How much time do we actually need to make up for all that has been stolen."
While I don't know that we will ever be able to reach historical parity on that point, I do think we have to start making it up in every intentional demand that we have for joy, for rest, because in the end, we can't win the battle, always with longevity, because of course, things like COVID come in and decimate our communities. In a moment when you can't quite figure out how to extend lifespan what you can do is battle for quality of life. That's something that people with disabilities have taught me, in their theory of crip time, they say, "Look, sometimes the way our bodies are so we don't get along time but what we can demand from the government and from those around us is that the time that we do have is quality time." I do think that Black people have to start thinking about how to fill up the space that we do have.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, and I'll remind you, you are not your ancestor's wildest dream. Their wildest dream was for joy and for freedom in their own lifetime. We're going to have to fulfill our own wildest dreams by reclaiming our time. Brittney Cooper is a friend of mine. She's also a professor at Rutgers University, and the author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Brittney, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.
Brittney Cooper: Good to talk to you.
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