I learned about CPT in the 1960s from a black activist, then the head of DC’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later mayor of the capital: Marion Barry. I was Marion’s media advisor.
As I wrote later:
It was during those months that Barry first gained a long-lingering reputation for always being late for appointments, news conferences, and actions. “I work on CPT — colored people’s time,” explained Barry. Part of my job was to stand on the street-corner and convince the press that Marion really would show up if they just waited a bit longer. The reporters would bitch, but since Barry was shaking up the city, they mostly waited anyhow.
Marion was leading a movement, but it had some of the intensity, closeness and spirit of a rebellion. Barry enlisted into the cause anyone he could find. You would be talking on the phone and a black special operator would break in with an “emergency call” and it would be Barry or Larry Pratt or someone else with the latest crisis or plan. There were black cops who had been spiritually seconded to the movement and ministers who served as a link between the radical Barry and the more moderate civil rights movement and friendly reporters who still believed there was an objective difference between justice and injustice,. And through it all was movement, excitement and hope, not even dampened by the thirtieth chorus of “We Shall Overcome” sung in a church hall while holding hands and waiting for Marion finally to show up.
Although I was only in my twenties, I already realized that I didn’t get to use the phrase CPT. It was one of those terms a culture uses to make fun of itself, but not the privilege of an outsider.
And it worked. Decades later Marion Barry was meant to take part in a conference at a hall in a building that was once the first black YMCA in the country. After waiting for him to show up, the chair let the other panelists give their talks. And then, as the audience was applauding the last speaker, the big doors in the back of the hall opened and in walked Marion and some aides to applause he never would have gotten if he had played by the schedule.
I doubt if Clinton and DeBlasio would have gotten into as much trouble if they had used the phrase a few decades ago. But we live in a hyper-semiotic era in which what anyone says is far more important than what they actually do.
After all, back in 1968, Detroit even had a public television show called Colored People’s Time designed to build community involvement in the black community.
And as recently as a decade ago, the phrase showed up on the popular TV series, The Wire, A girl asks Mario Stanfield when he wants to meet and he says, “Five. And five mean five. I don’t truck CP Time. Five and change; I’m gone.”
The key point that Clinton and DeBlasio missed is who gets to stay things like this. Writing in Huffington Post, the comedian Baratunde Thurston explained it well:
CP Time is an inside reference within the black community on the tendency of black folk to show up late for just about anything. Other ethnic groups have their own versions. I’ve heard of “India Standard Time” as well as the the more specific “Africa Time.” I imagine White People Time is when one shows up early and reserves the most precious resources for oneself. I kid, people. I kid. . .
In addition to appearing in the works of Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, there’s a lengthy explanation of CP Time in the December 1972 edition of Black World magazine.