Stunted Time: Eldercare and Black Temporality

By Justin Hogg | 

I.

I think about time as my grandmother’s memory fades more and more with each passing day, as her hair becomes patchy and forever short. I think about time as the same repetitions in my household occur: morning pills with one instant carnation chocolate shake; afternoon pills with one glass of water, 5 o’clock pill– “No, I don’t want any more water” she says; evening pills with a glass of half-juice half-water, bed pills with a cup of water. I think about time as I unfasten the clip which releases the urine contained in her foley catheter, changed every three weeks by the same woman for the last ten or so years. I think about time as Friday rolls around and my grandma gets her lemon cake and grande latte from Starbucks– “Where’s the rest of my coffee?” she asks every time, as soon as she has finished all of her coffee. I think about time in questions which are new to her and old to me: “Where do you work?” I think about time while stretching my grandmother’s limbs again and again, and feeling the stiffness of one leg that cannot move except when in my hands, and another leg which stiffens and resists as I stretch. I think about time as I meet my grandmother’s gaze, juggling memory between us, the auto-didact historian I am, the keeper of memories she is.

I think about time in reverse, grandmother holding my infant self, me holding her elderly self. I think about how we make light of time, how the word “reverse” doesn’t quite get at what is happening between my grandmother and myself, between her and my family, how our time doesn’t move linearly but circularly, like in a Bessie Head novel. I think about time while feeding my grandmother cheerios, banana slices cut up, toast with lots of butter. I think about time when my grandmother calls me foul names, when she hugs me with her strong arm and I struggle to remember what a hug with both of her arms felt like. I think about time when avoiding the image of her auburn hair in the San Francisco summer. I think about time but stop thinking at the time out of grasp.

Two relations to time become living, governing forces. There is on the one hand that universal time in which everything is already decided for me: the minutes on a clock racing by, the rough hands of some boss neither here nor there locking me into grueling shift after grueling shift. This time is concerned with naming, with neat fixtures, punctuality, indivisibility. The relationship of care I am a part of with my grandmother introduces a second relation. Where the first relation to time names our relationship as burdensome, invisible, unwaged, unproductive, the second relation posits something different. When I’m taking care of my grandmother I don’t find myself governed by these outside names. Caring for her then becomes a taking back of time, a time and a relation shared between two people who care for each other. The past mapped onto the present. It becomes a disregard for the supposed universal of a capitalist time in which my value is based on my wage and what I produce. It inhabits the spaces of both choice and necessity in ways that the so called productive forms of labor never could, in main because those forms of labor can only be named, governed and controlled from the outside. Taking care of my grandmother in a quiet room, the sounds of the outside muffled and harsh. Time slows there. We take care to listen. We take care to notice.

II.

“There’s time enough, and none to spare.” — Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition

“There is time, all that time can do/and so I’m gonna see it through/I’ve had a time, I’ve had it rough/now haven’t I had enough?” — Laura Nyro

One of the first images we see in Charles Burnett’s film My Brother’s Wedding is of the protagonist, Pierce, walking down a Los Angeles residential area with his back turned to the camera. He is hailed by a friend who sees him outside her window. She demands that he must see her sister’s newborn baby, much to Pierce’s chagrin, for he is on his way to meet with another friend’s mother who is waiting for her son to return home from prison. Within the first minutes of the film then, Pierce’s time is required and thus splintered.

“I don’t need responsibilities,” Pierce tells his friend, after being dragged inside the house and forced to pick up the child, as she jokes that he could be the father if he wanted to. But responsibilities find him everywhere he walks. In the next scene, he is hailed by another member of his community, a high school girl who has a crush on him. Instead of merely saying hello back to the girl and continuing on to his destination, he stops in his tracks, gives a shrug of his shoulders to again show his irritation, and proceeds to hear out the girl’s empty monologue about having something important to tell him but forgetting about it. It’s as if he feels a responsibility, not to be cordial so much, but to keep contact with the people of his community, no matter how little time he has, no matter what annoyance he might feel.

The length of these two scenes is telling. Where they could have been handled far quicker, we linger with Pierce through his feelings of responsibility to these people in his community. We linger there for just that extra sentence, just that extra shared look between Pierce and the teenaged girl, though we are already aware that he has much more important matters to attend to, that he is short on time after all.

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Time and responsibility haunt My Brother’s Wedding, through a number of modalities. One of these is stunted time. Stunted time isn’t so much the absence of time or even timelessness, but its superficial layerings, its doubling and overlays, its ponderousness. Stunted time is the act of wasted time, of time being eaten up. But by what? Definitions from the outside, expectations of how someone’s time should be spent. The socialization of time. In stunted time, things happen but nothing seems to happen, time passes and events occur but nothing gets recorded or affirmed by this outside force. It is time according to what one feels. Pierce takes on responsibilities that set his positionality back. The moments he affords himself are minimal. The film demonstrates this by cutting short many scenes showing Pierce on his own by introducing events in the middle of Pierce’s own time which take it away. In this way, the camera functions as an agent of that governing force from the outside–making decisions of what to show, deeming what is useful and worthy of being shown in regards to Pierce.

Early on in the film, after his parents leave for church, we get about a twenty–second scene where a woman enters his workplace and takes off her wedding ring, looking seductively at Pierce before the scene abruptly fades out to some socks drying on the fence. In the next scene Pierce is relaxing on a chair in the sun only for his mother to disrupt his peace and bug him about being respectful to his brother’s fiancee who he cannot stand due to her upper class bourgeois sensibilities. At another point in the film he is asleep at work, which, according to the definitions from outside (represented by the figure of his mother), would suggest that he is wasting his time and his life. Work is however, a waste of one’s time and thus life. As such, when Pierce finds himself suddenly woken up by his mother finding his friend Soldier and a girl in the back lying naked together after making love, one does not get the sense as a viewer that Pierce is greatly affected by this. It is what he has chosen to do with the little time he has to himself.

There are two instances where he is with Soldier and has a gun pulled on him, both when they are minding their own business, killing time. This second scene leads to a sprawling chase sequence that ends with Soldier finding the man who pulled the gun on them, though just when we expect some further conflict, the scene is abruptly terminated with no resolution. Another scene of interrupted leisure occurs as Pierce is chilling on a downtown street talking with a friend, before a girl from his community informs him of someone’s death. These moments in the film culminate in the point that Pierce’s time for himself is second to his responsibilities to his family, his friends, and his community. This is what the camera (also an outside force) deems will be shown. Furthermore, the film does not give visual affirmation of Pierce’s time in its constant choices of quick cuts, fade outs, and non-resolution. The tensions that Burnett relates with his decisions to end scenes abruptly or let the viewer linger for longer than what could be deemed necessary demands an intentionality and attention directed towards how stunted time tries to ground its protagonist in the film.

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In the main conflict of the film two events occur not just on the same day, but at the same time: a wedding and a funeral. Pierce must choose between the responsibility to his family and the responsibility to his dead best friend. The spatial configuration and depth that these events occupy couldn’t be further apart. The wedding is not just the marriage of his brother to his fiancee, but the marrying of Pierce’s family into upper middle class domesticity, as his brother’s fiancee has a doctor for a father, went to charm school, is a successful lawyer, and has always had all the of the resources and time in the world to move on up. The funeral is for Pierce’s friend Soldier — viewed by the greater community as a menace, a cancer who was better off incarcerated, whose death will mean a little less to worry about for all who knew and were involved with him. Soldier is presented then as a man whose time is already almost up, whether he is rotting in prison, a so–called free man wandering aimlessly and waiting to die, or finally, dead. Soldier is a man already socially dead, his physical death waiting around the corner.

The wedding can be read as the event that has been planned and nitpicked over for a year, every detail worked out, every contingency gone through. This aligns harmoniously with the upper class sensibilities of Pierce’s brother’s fiancee who belongs to a family with ample time to sit down for dinner every night, who has a maid to do all of their housework. They plan, they define, they luxuriate in the good life not necessitated by work or obligation outside of the family. The foreverness of a wedding, the “til death do I part”–ness of it all stands on one side far apart from Soldier. Alternatively, the funeral can be read as the event shot through with a kind of messianic time- the unplanned, the unaccounted for. People attend a funeral and then the casket is laid to rest. There is a finiteness to death rituals in the United States, though death is far more forever than weddings. The choice between the wedding and the funeral is the choice between those deemed worthy and those deemed worthless, between those with all the time in the world and those who have timed out–from the beginning. In the end Pierce makes a choice which doesn’t matter, he’s left in limbo. He leaves the wedding early but still misses the funeral, and is left with only himself in the final shot, for one of the few times in the film.

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Raoul Vaneigem, writing on space and time in his text “The Revolution of Everyday Life,” speaks to Pierce’s experience in this ending scene, imploring the reader to “Imagine the distraction and despair of someone torn between two instants, forever zigzagging in pursuit of one or the other without ever reaching either — and without ever grabbing hold of himself. “ [1] The two “instants” in our case would be the wedding and the funeral in the immediate sense but it is worth noting again what these two events represent for the protagonist in the film. This protagonist, Pierce, is marked as someone without a career, unmarried, living with his parents, someone constantly derided by the members of his community for refusing participation in the value–making of capitalist time, someone more concerned with his responsibilities to the people in his community (taking care of the elderly for instance in a few quiet, unadorned scenes of care– giving them their pills, bathing them, reading bible verses to them, even accounting for something as small as “making sure they don’t need anything”). Pierce zigzags not just between the two instants of the marriage and the funeral, but between relations to time– that universal time for which he is constantly undermining in his everyday practice, and a time built through community, a time built through care. In this zigzag, as Vaneigem claims, he does not ever “grab hold of himself,” and yet can anyone who performs acts of care, who is involved in their community, really hold onto themselves for too long? The ones who care will always have to inhabit the tiny moments in which their time is inevitably interrupted, they will never have enough time for themselves. It is in the relinquishment of a universal time, in a time always already defined from the outside, that those who care can grab a hold of themselves.

III.

How can it be that you’d die / you are me . . . which bloodlines of yours am I repeating? / through which gaze of mine do you gaze? / how many times we parted — Juan Gelman, “Letter to my Mother”

He was taken aback when his mother and grandmother got to talking about “Big Mama,” that mythic figure who died long before he was born. He had only seen her in one image, a cut of paper the size of a passport. In the image she stands in a dignified position, the kind of woman who has had to stand for others at attention her entire life but only recently has begun to stand for herself. Her skin touches the sunny side, for the other two people in the picture appear shadowed. Big Mama wears a noble expression on her face, like someone made her pose for a picture when she was right in the middle of slicing potatoes for a future meal. She was Big Daddy’s (his grandmother’s biological father) wife for 25 years, and his grandmother’s mother essentially, after her biological mother was murdered at a very young age. Most black families he knew seemed to have a Big Mama at some generational point. And every Big Mama seemed to have similar traits: larger than life, steadfast, dependable, tough. His mother always said that they don’t make women like Big Mama anymore. He wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a constant of sorts amongst black folks.

What struck him particularly was when his mother began to describe the end of Big Mama’s life. When she couldn’t take care of herself anymore, it was his grandmother who bathed her, fed her, watched her, and made her as comfortable as she could be before she passed. His grandmother was the only one by Big Mama’s side when she took her last breath. She said Big Mama didn’t even look like herself. But it was her. Big Mama’s failing body couldn’t make her a stranger. The strangeness of her immobility– that woman who ran everything for so long– couldn’t make her a stranger. He had never imagined this aspect of his grandmother. Not because he didn’t think it possible. He only conceived of her and her role in his life from the top down. His second mother. Never back up the scale he so erroneously created in his own time and thus in his own image. They shared hands, his grandmother and he, long and with a forest of veins viewed from the center of a tree which tried to live loudly but selflessly.

When his grandmother couldn’t take care of herself anymore, it wasn’t a question. That woman had lived with him and his mother for their entire lives. How could it be otherwise? How could his grandmother have left Big Mama’s side? How could they leave his grandmother’s side?

Taking on the feather light burden of caring for his grandmother connected him not only to her, but also to his ancestors who were otherwise unattainable in the tangible everyday. Furthermore, it created a narrative and more importantly, a reality of non–burdenship, of community, of strength, amidst the forces of white supremacy and the legacy of slavery which tore the communities of his ancestors apart by force and continue to do so today. It takes the myth of the disposable and domesticated black body enacted under slavery and constructs a different lived experience that posits the following: black folks can push back against the universals of value under the afterlife of slavery and seemingly never ending hell of racial capitalism. It says that no black person is disposable. It does this through action, through repetition, but not a repetition that can be bought or sold, stolen or copied.

IV.

Dionne Brand writes:

What is called Black culture, including aesthetic tastes and sensibilities, is used daily as creative backdrop to multinational markets. But more interestingly, what is produced in Black Homes, and neighbourhoods, the simplest exchanges in communities– expressions, gestures, understandings, dress– these are taken up in the generalizing, homogenizing culture. [2]

What is of note about Brand’s assertion is that everything she lists gets rendered visible whether or not they are actually seen. It is now possible to view a dance that originated within black circles performed dominantly and en masse by people who aren’t black. We now see shoes such as Timberlands which have long been associated with black people being labeled as fashionable by non–black folks in Mexico for instance. Beyond this however, is the point at which these aspects of black culture become commodified by what Brand terms the “homogenizing culture.” Indeed, these aspects of black life extend beyond the terrain of just the domestic sphere. The commodification of their physical aspects extend into the public sphere for anyone to take up. An exchange, a gesture, what one is wearing– the black subject no longer even has to be visible for these aspects to become commodified and subsumed into mass culture.

Those who take lack imagination, this is why they invent and inhabit an imaginary already in motion, an imaginary of black life already created for them. What gets characterized as [non] production– eldercare for one– because it has no value to a capitalist order by the very fact that the one being taking care of has stopped producing, ceased to labor, and that the ones who take care do not reproduce, say a worker for the workforce, but a loved one often for personal means. An aspect of black life that resists commodification.

In “black (beyond negation)” Keguro Macharia writes that, “Care pays attention to how we are known to ourselves and to each other. Care lingers at the ordinary: notices it, names it, creates it, inhabits it, pursues it, practices it.” Care cannot be worn and discarded, cannot be performed with a gesture. Care is not ordinary, but as Keguro writes, “lingers” there. This act of lingering being something that is, in my reading deeply concerned with time. To linger is to stay, is to sit with, often beyond what is deemed a necessary amount of time. It seems to me one possible antithesis of the thinking and actions required of mass culture, the “homogenizing culture” as Brand writes, of the capitalist order, which must for its own sake produce and take as fast and uncaringly as possible in its efforts to exploit. Care is not totally unseen perhaps, but happens unnoticed, hanging around the “ordinary” which is a realm no one fixes their eyes on for longer than they must. The “ourselves” and the “each other” that Keguro italicizes by way of Christina Sharpe speaks to care not being totally unseen.

We care for ourselves and each other, not for those who deem us valueless. When we say eldercare is invisible, is not valued, we know to who, and how.
Works Cited

[1] Vaneigem, Raoul, and Donald Nicholson-Smith. The Revolution of Everyday Life. PM Press, 2012. p. 203.

[2] Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Vintage Canada, 2001. p. 51, my italics.


[3] Macharia, Keguro. “Black (beyond Negation).” The New Inquiry, 26 May 2018, thenewinquiry.com/blog/black-beyond-negation/

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One thought on “Stunted Time: Eldercare and Black Temporality

  1. nicola says:

    I really appreciate this, it’s my second read and it’s so full. I’ve been thinking a lot about Eldercare lately because of my grandma and haven’t had that much to read on the subject. I’m very wowed by this piece and have a lot to chew on thank you for writing it.

    Like

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