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  • The Limbo Contest: Diaspora Temporality and its Reflection in Praisesong for the Widow and Daughters of the Dust
  • Sheila Smith McKoy (bio)

Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

. . . time is not a succession of hours! Time is always now, don’t you know! Listen to the drums. That there is a point of departure Now is always the time. Praise be to Charlie Parker And it don’t have nothing to do with hours

Now sing a song of NOW A song of the union of pastandfuture

—Keorapetse Kgositsile, “Points of Departure”

The ways in which time functions in African Diaspora cultures is startlingly different from the ways in which Western cultures construct time. It is a difference that Bonnie Barthold suggests is a collapsing of time, of temporal fluxes based upon the collision of African cyclical time with Western linear time. Despite Barthold’s insistence that chaos marks “the interval of passage” that describes black time as a temporal dispossession as a result of this collision, I want to consider reshaping the analysis by exploring the ways in which Diaspora cultures share a concept of time that belies the cultural collapse Barthold describes (Barthold 17–18). Time as it functions in Diaspora cultures deviates from Western notions of time and is consistent in its uses in all African Diaspora cultures. This concept of time links the many disparate Diaspora cultures although this is only one of the distinguishing differences between Diaspora time and Western time. In order to describe the ways in which time functions in Diaspora cultures, let me begin by explaining the significance of the word “contest” in the title.

In the Western concept of time, linear movement denotes a system that is defined [End Page 208] by competition—contest, accenting the first syllable This concept of time translates into scenes of colonization, slavery, and the creation of hierarchical systems of race and class dominance. Contest, then, aptly describes the Western notion of time. In this sense, time flows from the Western assertion that time is marked by the establishment of random origins that are followed by repeating cycles of conflict and resolution, each period dependent upon the overturning of the other. In the Western concept of time, conflict and derision define the connotative meaning of time as contest. Based on cultural definitions and experiences, the Western concept of time is postulated by Western philosophy in an unbroken line beginning with Aristotle and, perhaps, culminating with Heidegger’s Being and Time. Western time is dependent upon linear movement. Deviations from this “norm” such as when Shakespeare portrays Hamlet’s situation by declaring, “time is out of joint” (1.v.188), describe the ramifications of non-linear time in Western epistemological systems. Kristeva attempts to formulate an understanding of time that supersedes national, cultural, and social borders; however, even Kristeva bases her theory of time on linear history (471–84). Despite Kristeva’s attempt to make this concept of time multicultural, she still depends on a linearization of time that African notions of time reject. Such language defines the Western normative condition of time and its social ramifications.

By redefining the term by accenting the last syllable, we can access the Diaspora notion of time, one that is a fusion of African cyclical time and the disruption of this cycle forced by the Middle Passage. The impetus here is to defy Western temporal notions of time; time becomes a means to challenge Western attempts to disfigure Diaspora culture. Contest, then, denotes the cultural contiguities that cannot be erased by Western culture. While colonization and the Transatlantic Slave Trade undeniably brought about cultural ruptures in these communities, the persistency of Diaspora time marks a people’s commitment to cultural survival. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggests, there is a “fragmented unity” between Diaspora cultures despite the...

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pp. 208-222
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