It’s About Time: The Fight for Equal Time
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Time has always been complicated for JJJJJerome Ellis. (Mr. Ellis uses this spelling of his first name because it’s the word he stutters on most.) As a composer, poet, and performer who stutters, he comes up against time limits that most people take for granted.
“A time limit assumes that all people have relatively equal access to time through their speech. Which is not true,” says Mr. Ellis. “I can rehearse something as many times as I want,” he says, “but I don’t actually know how long it will take to say anything until I have to say it.”
Mr. Ellis used to think his stutter was his fault. But he’s done blaming himself.
In Episode 5 of the Monitor’s six-part podcast series, “It’s About Time,” hosts Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll explore how disability, gender, and race can affect our access to time.
They talk to Mr. Ellis about his journey to reclaim his time. They also hear from linguistics professor Deborah Tannen about how culture and gender can lead us to different – and sometimes inequitable – expectations of each other’s time.
‘If you can keep it’: Where next for a strained democracy
“Women monitor ourselves because we don’t want to be seen as taking up too much space,” says Dr. Tannen. “If they talk at a meeting, they may try to be as succinct as possible.”
For Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University, time is a privilege. She points to many ways that Black people are robbed of hours, days, and even years of their lives. Dr. Cooper says, “To be Black in this country is to always be in a fight for more time.”
This is Episode 5 of a six-part series that’s part of the Monitor’s “Rethinking the News” podcast. To listen to the other episodes on our site or on your favorite podcast player, please visit the “It’s About Time” series page.
This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.
Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza, a producer on this podcast. Today, we’ve got Episode 5 of our science series, “It’s About Time,” hosted by Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll. If you haven’t listened to the rest of the series so far, go back and check them out! Enjoy today’s episode.
JJJJJerome Ellis [Note: He uses this spelling because the word he stutters on most frequently is his name.]: I got up to the microphone and, you know, I knew my, my whole voice would be heard in the school. And I, I got up there and I, I couldn’t, I couldn’t say the, I couldn’t say the first word.
Rebecca Asoulin: This is JJJJJerome Ellis. He’s a composer, performer, and writer. And he stutters. He’s talking about a time in seventh grade when he had to read something over the morning announcements.
JJJJJerome Ellis: I remember the feeling, which is a feeling I feel so often of, like, ‘Oh, I’m, I’m wasting everyone’s time,’ or like, ‘I’m not saying this in the, in the amount of time I should.’
I don’t know how long I stayed up there, but I eventually just like, walked away from the microphone, and was like crying and I just left.
Eoin O’Carroll: This is, “It’s About Time.” A series all about…
Rebecca: Time. I’m Rebecca Asoulin.
Eoin: And I’m Eoin O’Carroll.
Rebecca: In this science series, we interview experts on time. They’ll help us unravel its mysteries.
Eoin: Because understanding time more deeply can help us make the most of the time we have.
Rebecca: In this episode, we’re exploring what it means to have access to time. Gender, race, and disability all affect our access.
Eoin: We talk about the ways that time is denied to different people and what we can all do to change that.
Rebecca: Time has been complicated for JJJJJerome his entire life. You may not realize it, but time limits are everywhere.
Eoin: Some types of events come with explicit time limits, like performances, speeches, and oral exams. But our society also imposes many more unspoken limits, too.
Rebecca: Like speaking on the morning announcements at school –
JJJJJerome Ellis: That’s an example of sort of like an internal time limit. They’re, they’re sort of an interruption in the day, so you want to sort of make them as efficient as possible.
Eoin: Talking on the phone –
JJJJJerome Ellis: I’ve had, you know, thousands of experiences where I’m speaking with someone on the phone and they hang up on me because I’m stuttering and they assume, assume, assume that the – that the line has dropped.
Rebecca: Even answering a question –
JJJJJerome Ellis: In my life, I have, have pretended not to know the answer to something because I, because I couldn’t say it, or because the labor involved in saying it was too intense for me.
Rebecca: A quick note about how we edited my conversation with JJJJJerome. JJJJJerome’s stutter is called a glottal block, which means he has trouble with the first consonant in certain words. Sometimes you’ll hear that as silence. We kept in his stutter and kept the conversation to real time as much as possible to stay true to his natural pace of speaking.
Eoin: We know there’s an inherent tension here. We’re looking at how certain social structures limit people’s access to time. And the podcast where we’re doing this is one of those structures.
Rebecca: As producers, we needed to be creative with JJJJJerome’s interview. Audio is not a very friendly medium to anyone with atypical speech.
Rebecca: JJJJJerome felt for a really long time that his stutter was his fault.
JJJJJerome Ellis: The way I thought of myself and my stutter is that this is something that is wrong with me, and it is, it is my responsibility. And that all the pain and struggle that comes from it is, is, is, is ultimately mine. And so it’s my fault, essentially, that they’re hanging up. I’ve long felt that there’s something not right about that.
Rebecca: But JJJJJerome’s done blaming himself. This is the story of how he took his time back.
Announcer: JJJJerome Ellis.
Rebecca: JJJJJerome is a musician and a performer. So he bumps up against time limits all the time. Last year, he collided with another one. It was at the annual New Year’s Day Marathon hosted by the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City. It’s a 10-hour long event with back to back performances. Each performance has a 2- to 3-minute time limit.
JJJJJerome Ellis [Poetry Project]: And I understood intuitively that the purpose of this time limit was to create as nonhierarchical a space as possible.
Rebecca: This is from his performance:
JJJJJerome Ellis [Poetry Project]: But in removing one hierarchy, the time limit introduces another. A time limit assumes that all people have relatively equal access to time through their speech. Which is not true. Stuttering is very unpredictable. I can rehearse something as many times as I want, but I don’t actually know how long it will take to say anything until I have to say it.
JJJJJerome Ellis: When I was rehearsing it in the streets, the average would be about, would be about, about two and a half minutes.
Rebecca: Which was well within the time limit. But on the day of his performance, JJJJJerome spoke for a little over 10 minutes. And the audience loved it.
JJJJJerome Ellis: My goal going into it was really to, like, reach the end. I just want to say every word I’ve, I’ve, I’ve written out in advance. I want to not do what I’ve, what I’ve done in the past where like, like, like, like, I was saying to you earlier, like, like saying the announcements in middle school, I – you know, I didn’t even, I didn’t even, like, let myself stay and and say it. I just, I gave up. You know, I’ve I’ve given up many other times and I didn’t want to do that.
Rebecca: JJJJJerome no longer feels that he needs to change. Instead, it’s society that needs to become more accessible.
Eoin: A few years ago, he came across the work of the Canadian disability studies scholar Joshua St. Pierre. St. Pierre also has a stutter, and he writes about how many forms of disability are spatial. Entrance ramps, for example, are about increasing access to spaces. But stuttering, St. Pierre writes, is temporal.
JJJJJerome Ellis: When I, when I started reading, I started reading St. Pierre’s work, it just really helped me just take an enormous amount of, of weight off of myself. And pressure. And to not see like my stutter as solely my responsibility.
Rebecca: JJJJJerome realized that society has certain expectations for rhythms of speech.
JJJJJerome Ellis: Those are also responsible for the pain and struggle that, that I feel sometimes in relationship with my stutter. And at the same time it helped me focus more on the aspects of my stutter that I find very valuable, and have a great deal of beauty and music to it, you know.
Rebecca: Society can change.
Eoin: At the start of his New Year’s performance, JJJJerome speaks about something he came across in a book about unusual laws. A state in Brazil offers a 50% discount on cellphone minutes to customers with speech impediments.
Rebecca: I asked him about this in our interview.
JJJJJerome Ellis: The author of the book was, in fact, mocking that law as something that is silly or unnecessary. They didn’t see, they didn’t see the ways in which that was trying to address an issue of accessibility.
The author, you know, has probably never had the experience of being hung up on the phone, or running up their cellphone bill because what should be a five minute call is taking much longer.
Eoin: This lack of awareness doesn’t just impact people with disabilities.
JJJJJerome Ellis: If you are privileged by a certain structure or environment, or that structure, environment works for you, then it can be hard for you to see ways in which that won’t work for someone else.
Noelle Swan: Hi everyone. I’m Noelle Swan, an editor for “It’s About Time.” Like a lot of people, I have always had a somewhat adversarial relationship with time. It seems like I’m always in some kind of race against it. But this podcast has helped me to think outside the clock. We’re able to produce this series thanks to your financial support. If you’d like to listen to more podcasts from us, consider subscribing to the Monitor at csmonitor.com/subscribe.
Eoin: A lot goes into how much access a person has to time.
Rebecca: As we’ve been talking about, your ability status affects your access.
Eoin: But if you’ve listened to episodes 3 and 4 –
Rebecca: – check them out if you haven’t –
Eoin: – you’d have heard how your culture influences your access to time. So does your financial status. And so does being a parent.
Rebecca: Gender does too.
Deborah Tannen: So who talks more? That’s a very interesting question.
Eoin: This is Deborah Tannen –
Deborah Tannen: – a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. And I study how people talk.
Eoin: Dr. Tannen writes about how we speak to each other and how it affects our relationships. Her best-known book is, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.”
Rebecca: To answer the question of who speaks more – men or women – she likes to tell the story of a couple who attended one of her talks.
Deborah Tannen: And they were noticeable because they were sitting very close. They were holding hands.
Rebecca: The woman said nothing. And the man was really talkative. But then at the end of her talk, Dr. Tannen told the group:
Deborah Tannen: Often at the end of the day, when women and men come together – it doesn’t matter who’s been home and who’s been at work – the woman might tell the guy what happened during the day, who she met, what she thought, what they said. And then she would ask him, “How was your day?” And he’ll say something like, “Oh, same old rat race.”
Rebecca: And the man at the talk, who’d been talking up a storm the entire time, pointed to his silent wife and said:
Deborah Tannen: “That’s so true. She’s the talker in our family.” And everybody burst out laughing.
Rebecca: Dr. Tannen has found that men and women learn different rules for speaking.
Eoin: On average, men talk more in public settings, like work meetings.
Rebecca: And women talk more in private settings, like at home.
Deborah Tannen: Women monitor ourselves because we don’t want to be seen as taking up too much space. So if they talk at a meeting, they may try to be as succinct as possible. You don’t want to be putting yourself forward. You don’t want to be the center of attention. You don’t want people to think that you want to be the center of attention.
Rebecca: In a classroom or a meeting, when men and women spend the same amount of time talking, people actually think that the women talked more.
Eoin: Both men and women perceive this. That’s how deeply ingrained the expectation is that women will speak less in these settings.
Rebecca: In meetings, many women have had this other experience where they share an idea and then later on a man repeats that same idea –
Deborah Tannen: – and suddenly it’s a great idea, but it’s his idea. Partly, it’s the expectation about who you’re going to hear a great idea from. Sometimes it is the phenomenon that you’re hearing it for the second time. And so you’re paying more attention. Sometimes it’s how tentatively versus how declaratively the point was made, how much space was taken up by explaining this idea. So it could be a whole bunch of things.
And I trace it to the way boys and girls learn to use language as children. Little girls are more likely to talk in small groups or even in pairs. The center of their social life is often a best friend. It’s very common to see two little girls, one is whispering in the other’s ear. And the sense of closeness in the relationship is often created by talk.
Boys tend to play in larger groups. And it’s the activity that’s central. Your best friends are the ones you do everything with. The boys tend to use talk to negotiate their status in the group, saying how good they are at something, telling jokes, telling stories, somehow keeping that center stage position.
Eoin: These patterns often continue into adulthood, with grown-up consequences.
Rebecca: In our personal relationships, differences in communication styles can lead to feeling disconnected or not listened to.
Eoin: In professional settings, it can really hurt women’s careers.
Deborah Tannen: I’m always very clear that one style isn’t better than another. Any style is good if it’s shared and understood, and any style is problematic if it’s not shared and not understood. But sometimes there are things that can get people’s way in terms of getting jobs, being successful in the workplace.
Eoin: It’s not just gender that influences how we talk. Ethnicity, religion, culture, language, even the kind of neighborhood you live in comes into play.
Deborah Tannen: We have very – I say “we” because I grew up in Brooklyn – we have a rather fast pace that to us is normal. So the amount of time you leave, to be sure nobody else wants the floor is very short. If you’re not used to that pace of conversation, you really think you haven’t been given a chance to get the floor.
Rebecca: Dr. Tannen once gave advice on a talk show to another woman from New York City whose husband was from the Midwest.
Deborah Tannen: He complained that she talked too much when they had guests over for dinner and didn’t give him a chance to talk. She said to me, “He’s a big boy. He can get the floor same way I can.” And he said in the background, “You need a crowbar to get into those conversations.”
So it isn’t just gender, it’s culture as well. But these things are so automatic. We do tend to think of it in terms of intentions and abilities, and not just different ways of speaking that we’ve learned over time.
Eoin: It’s funny because it seems like a lot of the miscommunication between men and women and maybe between regions is really people trying to follow the golden rule.
Deborah Tannen: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’ does not work if the person it’s going to be done unto has a different conversational style.
Eoin: Rebecca, you’ve been quiet.
Rebecca: No, I haven’t. It’s just because I’ve talked just as much as you, and so you think I’ve been quiet. Yeah, it’s interesting, Eoin and I hosting this podcast, because I’m definitely more of an extrovert. And how I’ve been gendered in my speaking style is not very feminine. I’ve definitely been the person who’s been told they’ve been bossy more than they’ve been too quiet. And Eoin’s kind of the opposite.
Deborah Tannen: You’re reminding me of a colleague of mine who was on the faculty somewhere in Los Angeles, and she once said that a student in her class said, “I’m sick of being told that I talk like a man. What I talk like is a New Yorker.”
Rebecca: In many countries, people from regions that speak quickly are seen as more intelligent.
Eoin: Those who speak more slowly are seen as less so.
Rebecca: JJJJJerome Ellis mentioned the assumptions people make about him because of his stutter.
JJJJJerome Ellis: Someone who speaks like me is seen to be stupid or to not know, or to not, not know what they’re talking about.
Eoin: JJJJJerome’s access to time isn’t just influenced by his stutter.
JJJJJerome Ellis: I feel that both as someone who is Black and someone who has a stutter, they are, are deeply interwoven. Time and access to time is racially inflected and there are so many spheres in which this happens.
Brittney Cooper: To be Black in this country is to always be in a fight for more time.
I’m Brittney Cooper, associate professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, and author of “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.”
Eoin: When Dr. Cooper talks about the fight for more time, part of what she means is how racism can actually shorten people’s lives.
Rebecca: The life expectancy for Black Americans is roughly 75 years old. For White Americans, it’s 79.
Eoin: We’re recording this in February of 2021. Right now, Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a rate 28% higher than white Americans.
Brittney Cooper: That literally means that our life expectancy is being dramatically affected, that the amount of time that we get on the earth is being curtailed.
We’re trying to be here as long as we can, while living in conditions that are designed for us to die. And part of the way that we get here is people don’t actually think that the time that Black people have to spend on the earth is valuable.
Eoin: Dr. Cooper points to the higher mortality rates of Black mothers. And the disproportionate use of suspensions to punish Black children. And the excessive use of force by police on Black Americans. And the amount of time Black men in particular lose to mass incarceration.
Rebecca: Think about the phrase “doing time” to describe serving a prison sentence.
Eoin: In 2016, Dr. Cooper gave a TED Talk called “The racial politics of time.” This is from that TED Talk:
Brittney Cooper [Ted Talk]: Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that “the defining feature of being drafted into the Black race is the inescapable robbery of time.” We experience time discrimination, he tells us, not just as structural, but as personal: in lost moments of joy, lost moments of connection, lost quality of time with loved ones and lost years of healthy quality of life.
Rebecca: Dr. Cooper’s Ted talk really inspired JJJJJerome. He’s been doing research on the role of clocks and watches on plantations in the U.S.
JJJJJerome Ellis: Masters often would not let their slaves have watches or clocks as a way of exerting control over time.
Rebecca: Enslavers would strike bells or blow horns to signal when enslaved people needed to start or end work, when they had to wake up, and when they could eat meals.
JJJJJerome Ellis: One aspect of your existence as a slave is that you don’t have control over how you spend your time, and you also – it’s also going to be hard for you to know what time it is. Many, many slaves, of course, knew how to, how to tell time using the, the sun and stars, and there are, are modes of resistance they enacted through that.
Brittney Cooper: In my first book, “Beyond Respectability,” I talk about the way that Black folks literally have to make the argument coming out of slavery that they are capable of being people of the future. That they are not like this weak race, that is just going to die out because they’re not sort of being paternalistically controlled by the institution of slavery.
Eoin: Dr. Cooper talks about how Black people’s efforts to reclaim their time continues right up to this day.
Rebecca: To Dr. Cooper, reclaiming time is partially about affirming that Black people have had an impact on history.
Eoin: Since the era of colonization, the ruling ideology has cast Black people outside of time – characterizing them as non-historic people who have no impact on progress. Dr. Cooper paraphrases the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German phenomenologist who has had a massive influence on thinkers on both ends of the political spectrum.
Brittney Cooper: As he put it, “Africa was no historical part of the world.” So we should move on from her, never to speak of her again. The African continent was seen as a place that was not impactful in terms of the flow and thrust of history. And so there was this kind of white male narcissism that says that Europe is the place through which we understand the move and march of time.
Rebecca: This boils down to the racist idea that –
Brittney Cooper: The place from which white people come is the place that is historically significant, and the place from which Black folks come is in fact not historically significant.
Rebecca: To Dr. Cooper, Black people reclaiming their time is also about everyone recognizing how the past affects the present, and not dismissing Black people who insist that racism still matters. Because usually, when a Black person does that, someone else, usually white, says:
Brittney Cooper: “Why can’t you all move on? Why do you keep bringing up this thing that happened?” Right? Or, “My ancestors didn’t own slaves, or I didn’t enslave anybody. You’re sort of imposing the past on me.” And part of the argument that I make is Black folks say, Look, the past and the things that happened to our ancestors have so fundamentally shaped what was possible for us. How you treated Black people in the past in terms of their possibility, in terms of their educational access, in terms of their access to building generational wealth, fundamentally still shapes the life chances of people in the 21st century.
Eoin: Dr. Cooper’s family has lived in the same parish in Louisiana for generations. They’ve been there since at least 1870. That was the year that the federal census first listed Black Americans by name alongside the rest of the U.S. population.
Brittney Cooper: My people have been in the Americas for at least two centuries and most likely longer. And yet I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I graduated from college in the 21st century, in 2002.
Rebecca: Dr. Cooper says that another important way white people act as though they own time is by controlling the pace of social inclusion.
Brittney Cooper: People who are demanding inclusion into democracy, particularly around questions of racial justice, are often saying things like, “Freedom now.” “Defund the police now.” “We’re tired of negotiating. We don’t want to hear about how this is a gradual process. End slavery now. We don’t want gradual abolition.”
Rebecca: And the people in power to make those changes –
Brittney Cooper: – they typically respond by slowing time down. So they say things like, “We can’t just change everything tomorrow. We can’t upend everything. We have to take it step by step. There’s a process to this. We need to be convinced. We have to convince other people.”
Eoin: Dr. Cooper says that these arguments can be exhausting. She says white people tend to believe that progress is inevitable, and so this endless delaying of justice is all about white complacency.
Rebecca: But when we talked to Dr. Cooper, she still had hope that we can make time more equitable.
Brittney Cooper: We don’t have to see time as one more privilege to be bandied about, something that those with more power and money and access get and the rest of us are just out of luck. We can begin to think about time as a value worth protecting, worth legislating around, worth organizing around.
Rebecca: In her TED Talk, she ends with this:
Brittney Cooper [TED Talk]: I believe the future is what we make it. But we can’t get there on colored people’s time or white time or your time or even my time. It’s our time. Ours. Thank you.
Eoin: For JJJJJerome, reclaiming time from society’s expectations and assumptions is hard work.
Rebecca: But as he said before, it can also be a process with a lot of beauty to it.
JJJJJerome Ellis: What really helps me think about time is, is thinking about it through music. In music, you know, you, you are shaping time constantly but that it’s always moving.
Eoin: Music is the art of combining sound with time. A good musician can literally move their audiences’ bodies according to their chosen rhythm.
Rebecca: The music you’re hearing right now was actually composed by JJJJJerome. It’s a live recording of “The River,” his first symphony. That’s JJJJJerome on the saxophone, keyboard, sampler, and synthesizer. He performed this symphony with two other musicians in Brooklyn back in 2014. It was actually the first and only time he performed all four movements of the symphony which clocks in at just under 40 minutes.
Rebecca: In a performance, the musician and the audience can be patient. For JJJJJerome, a just world is a world where people have equal access to time. That world is a flexible and patient one. Because there are many forms of injustice. Because people’s needs change.
Rebecca: So the last question is one that we’ve asked everybody. What’s your definition of time?
JJJJJerome Ellis: Ooh. I love that. I would say that time is, time is, is the possibility of change.
Eoin: We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, subscribe to “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating or comment. And share “It’s About Time” with your friends, family, and coworkers! You can find us at csmonitor dot com slash time.
Rebecca: This series is hosted and produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin. My co-host is Eoin O’Carroll. Editing and additional production by Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas. Additional editing by Noelle Swan and Clay Collins. Additional production support from Ibrahim Onafeko. Sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson.
Eoin: We used snippets from Brittney Cooper’s TED Talk from TEDWomen 2016. And special thanks to JJJJJerome Ellis for letting us use his performance at the Poetry Project and his music, including this song, called “Variations.”
This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.
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