I want Black time travelers to be a threat to the status quo
Fuck the status quo.
This essay contains spoilers for See You Yesterday, Siempre Bruja, Mortal Kombat 11, and Kindred, as well as discussions of sexual violence and anti-Black state violence.
I was eighteen, a freshman in college studying film and visual arts, and deeply interested in the history of both. A film studies professor asked the class one evening, “If you could travel back in time to any decade since the birth of cinema, which era would you choose?” We were meant to allow the films, actors, and auteurs we had studied and our personal tastes to influence our answers.
The white students eagerly raised their hands to opine about films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis from the 1920s German Expressionism era. Breathless was overwhelmingly cited in appreciation for the French New Wave of the 1960s. Many spoke on how they would love to have been there to engross themselves in the film noir of the 1940s and 50s, and the prospect of experiencing the 1970s and 80s horror classics The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, Aliens, and more in the theater when they were first released was a common sentiment as well.
But I’m Black, I thought. And a woman. In the American South. When and where the hell could I go and feel safe? What theaters would I even be allowed into? A pre-colonial existence wasn’t an option in this time travel scenario. The birth of cinema only happened a hundred years or so ago.
Not only did this moment serve as a testament to the fact that the cannon of films we studied was overwhelmingly white—the only Black characters present, if any, were monstrosities in one way or another—but it also forced me to consider my racial identity, my locality, my proximity to monstrosity and death in ways that my white counterparts would never be asked to do, especially not in a classroom setting such as this.
The question of where and when to travel seemed simple enough and was even a fun exercise for many of my classmates, but for me it was a question of my ability to even survive the climate of any given era of the 20th century.
What I have described here is not a unique experience, nor is my sentiment a novel one. There were a few other Black students peppering the sea of white faces in the lecture hall that evening who were also asked to consider their Blackness and the history attached to it, both as it relates to film and otherwise. Many Black folks have been asked or have asked ourselves some variation of the time travel question and had some variation of the same reaction I did.
“Black people don’t/can’t time travel” is something I’ve heard countless times in discussions about the racial disparity in time travel stories, and I’ve been hearing it more and more in recent years, perhaps because filmmakers and storytellers have been trying more and more to subvert this unwritten rule.
One constant among white time travelers is the fear derived from the accepted narrative that, according to the established rules of time travel, changing something significant in the past would also greatly impact our present reality and therefore the future. Altering historical events in time travel is seen as precarious and dangerous, but consider who such a narrative truly serves when the events of our history have led us here—where the present for Black folks is often no less threatening than the past, where we continue to live in closer proximity to death than others because of our Blackness.
The status quo, for Black people, is already fraught with precarity and danger. The status quo, for us, is a result of centuries of oppressions. Fuck the status quo. Fuck trying to preserve the present and future of a world atrophied by white supremacy and colonialism.
If the accepted standard of time travel stories must be about maintaining the status quo, to one extent or another, it means they can never be about imagining prosperous Black futures or reimagining our history as one that reconfigures Black people’s relationship with time altogether. It is because of our relationship to history that our relationships to time travel and time itself are fundamentally different than the white time travelers we see at the forefront of the majority of these stories.
If we agree that time is “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future,” then Black time travelers could easily become a threat to the status quo. Black time travelers, if presented with the opportunity and means to reverse the irreversible, would have a vested interest in rewriting our past to create a better existence for Black people in the present and the future. These are the time travel stories I ache for.
There has been a recent spawn of shows that use time travel to tell their stories. Their popularity is revealing of current social anxieties and suggests a desire to reflect on the present state of the world and the uncertainty of our future. NBC’s Timeless and the short-lived Fox comedy Making History both have supporting Black characters and comment on how time travel can be more complicated for Black people as compared to the white characters in shows like Outlander, and as a result the Black characters often become minimized in the action and plot.
Time Wasters, a UK comedy about a time-traveling quartet, gives us a majority Black-led cast, but it is not honest about the reality of our present. One character says, “Any time before the mid-80s wasn’t good for Black people”—as if anti-Blackness somehow dissipated during this decade and the late 80s, the 90s, or even now are safe eras for Black people to exist in. These shows demonstrate how the presence of Black time travelers and the acknowledgement of the world’s anti-Black history are not enough to deliver what I would regard as satisfying Black time travel stories.
The Spike Lee-produced Netflix feature, See You Yesterday, feels very intentional in its attempt to defy the standard script for Black people and time travel, but it falls short of satisfying for me as well. It tells the story of two Black teenagers, CJ and Sebastian, who build a time machine for a school Science Fair and end up using it to try to prevent CJ’s older brother, 17 year-old Calvin, from being unjustly killed by police. Unfortunately, CJ and Sebastian fail multiple times in their attempts, and Calvin continues to die.
The final shot of the film shows CJ running, hard and determined, towards the past once again to try to prevent her brother’s death. We never learn whether or not she is successful, neither are we given any indication of how this final trip turns out. We don’t even know if it is her final trip. Maybe this just keeps happening, Calvin dying and CJ failing to stop it, on a loop for an untold amount of time.
See You Yesterday is honest about being Black in the present, but it also asks us to dwell on Black pain, the deaths of Black children, and racialized state violence for the entire length of the film and then offers us nothing in the way of hope, affirmation, or catharsis in the end. It just made me angry.
Netflix’s Siempre Bruja was also a disappointment this year. I’d initially had high hopes when it was first announced, marketed as a show about an enslaved Afro-Colombian time-traveling witch from the 17th century, but the first episode reveals that she only (reluctantly) agrees to go into the future in order to save her white lover, the son of the man who owns her.
People always recommend Octavia Butler’s Kindred or its graphic novel adaptation to me when I lament the lack of Black time travelers in popular sci-fi and fantasy media. I expected to find an affirming and life-changing tale in its pages, but was disheartened to instead find that main character Dana’s story is full of trauma and violence and loss, albeit beautifully rendered. The reason she is repeatedly whisked back in time is because she has somehow been tasked with saving the slaveholder, again and again at different points in his life, who would eventually father her great-grandmother through the sexual violation of her great-great-grandmother, to ensure that she herself can be born.
Both Siempre Bruja and Kindred ask us to accept Black women time travelers as the saviors of white men complicit in and actively benefiting from the institution of slavery and dehumanization of Black people, an institution which was particularly cruel to Black women through sexual and reproductive violences, as well as “relationships” with skewed power dynamics. Forgive me if I don’t find these stories to be fulfilling, escapist, or satisfying enough.
Recent demonstrations of the limitations around time travel for Black people has not been limited to film and television. The ending of this year’s Mortal Kombat 11 video game features short clips of each character deciding how to use their newly-attained god-like power to manipulate time. The character Jax ultimately chooses to prevent the Transatlantic slave trade. As the internet is wont to do, this ending was blown completely out of proportion and outrage was manufactured. Somehow, the version of events I initially heard was that Jax uses the sands of time to burn ships before they can ever reach African shores. I relished in the thought and was disappointed when I eventually learned that what really happens involves Jax talking briefly about how lucky he is to have lived “The American Dream,” a fleeting image of white Europeans bowing and peacefully greeting Africans, and a happily ever after in a Wakanda-like setting, presumably an Africa unadulterated in any way by white colonialism.
Actually, disappointed is an understatement. I had celebrated the idea of the rumor I’d heard, and learning that it was not true felt like having something taken away. Maybe I’m just vengeful, but so what if I am? If Black time travel stories are so hellbent on asking us to repeatedly consider the weight of white violence and colonialism on Black lives—much like many Black horror narratives seem to be intent on doing—I feel no guilt for asking for more from them, including vengeance.
I don’t want any more Black time travel stories that don’t do the kind of work I so desperately want them to do, that don’t have any real catharsis for Black people. I know the value of Black nihilism, but goddamn, I want us to be able to escape into these stories. We are already well aware of the constant threat of violence to Black bodies and both the casual and deliberate anti-Blackness of the past and present, and that will continue into our future even as we fight tirelessly against it. If stories with Black time travelers only serve to give us reminders of this ugly truth, I think it’s fair to question whether they really do anything productive for Black people. I want time travel narratives to do more than this, I want Black time travelers to be a threat to the status quo.
I say, let Black time travelers burn all the ships, the ones headed for Africa and the ones headed for the New World. Let Black time travelers commune with their ancestors and warn them about just how far and how deep the malignancy of whiteness can reach, and let them kill or castrate the white man who tries to force himself on their great-great grandmother, just to save her the heartache, even if it means they might no longer exist or create a time paradox in the process. Fuck this timeline anyway. I want Black time travelers to fuck up white history for the sake of Black futures.