Choosing Play is Black radical parenting
I know how easy it is to get lost in work because work pays the bills and the bills never cease. But play is a gateway to joy.
by Hess Love
“Colonialism, capitalism, the myth of white supremacy and all interwoven systems of oppression, have never allowed for the divine unique spark of children to truly flourish – and they were never designed to. Singing this spark back to us is the quest that many of us spend our adult lives journeying upon. The flame of our inner child was conditioned to fit within dying systems, because that very same flame is the one that will burn the systems to the ground. That flame of play and creativity carries codes of world-bending brilliance that are unique to each and every one of us, and that few classrooms and corporate offices could ever dream of containing.” – Haley Jessica Smith
My grandfather is playful and always has been, even in transitioning into retirement and becoming a great grandfather. He remains playful. Children that encounter him immediately pick up on this and , and proceed to perfume the air with giggles and their own versions of joy.
When I began living with my grandparents, we lived in a mostly white neighborhood and as a fat Black girl, I was isolated by my peers. The play that my grandfather offered was a guaranteed refuge: there was no teasing, no picking me last, no making me feel ashamed for the Barbies and other toys I showed up with. He didn’t pretend that he didn’t know me when his friends came around, something that one of the Dean girls did to me often when other white girls like herself showed up. There was no playing in secret, there was no shame in being seen with a Black child, playing.
My grandfather’s childhood was inundated with Jim Crow, a time more overt in its restriction of Black movement, Black recreation, Black joy-making. Though this system upheld hate and restricted play, my grandfather defied it and passed this wisdom to me.
It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized play is both a facet of familial love and an act of resistance. In an existence laden with the stress of paying bills in a society that underpays Black people, while at the same time forcing us to incur fees, fines and taxes. And I can’t help but notice how these are consequences for having the nerve to be Black and alive, especially when Black and poor, and/ or fat, and/ or disabled, and/or queer.
The expectation to work without equal pay and the opportunity to play has compounded during the pandemic, with some families having to juggle working (if they haven’t lost their job) and parenting, or working outside while worrying about the possibility of bringing COVID-19 home.
Working remotely during the pandemic is challenging, and it’s been hard to remember to gift myself, and my children, dedicated time to play.
Somehow, i’m supposed to be a stay-at-home, full-time working mom, virtually absent of support, and remember to eat and drink water. On top of that my children and I’s sleep schedules are impacted by fireworks that occur day and night, on top of a drive-by that happened last week. It’s been a challenge to get good rest, let alone play.
And when I think about the fact that Breonna, Tony, George, Black trans women and young Black girls everywhere are on fires set by white men, it is all too much. These simultaneous pandemics have me fucked up. It has us all fucked up. But I can’t allow it to fuck up my parenting because though I want a break, need it even, there is none in sight.
I forgot that I have the option to play, even with the stress of everything going on. All too often, the stresses of the world negatively impact Black parenting.
We’re in a centuries long play deficit.
According to Family Lives, “Children can develop many skills through the power of play. They may develop their language skills, emotions, creativity and social skills. Play helps to nurture imagination and give a child a sense of adventure. Through this, they can learn essential skills such as problem solving, working with others, sharing and much more.” Black children and Black adults have to build these skills without as much space to play. The freedom to roam, to wonder, to imagine the world isn’t as broad as it is for white folks.
While black children are able to play, many face restrictions due to inaccessible spaces. Black parenting builds from survival, survival in being small or obedient, or well behaved in public, lest we face persecution or judgment or ridicule, or even worse – physical and judicial punishment. We tell our children to not take up space, even when it’s not verbal. We tell them to not wander, we tell them that this world is not for their pleasure – it is for their work.
Brittany Cooper says, “The freedom that white children have to see the world as a place that they can explore, a place in which they can sit, or stand, or climb at will. The world, they are learning, is theirs for the taking.”
Adultification and the request that Black children “behave well” strips them of play. When parents and caretakers reclaim playfulness, it becomes a necessary, exciting, and revolutionary approach to Black parenting.
I know how easy it is to get lost in work because work pays the bills, even if barely, and the bills never cease. By the time we look up, we’re so tired that the best we feel we can do is just turn the TV on and sit down and absorb something.
Capitalism and the inhumane work economy is invested in making sure that Black parents and Black children do not have the time for play, but I’m ready to take play back.
This pandemic has highlighted how crucial it is for Black families to reclaim play time, playfulness, and recess with each other. Play is a gateway to joy, it is another way of parenting for resistance in declaring that you, your family members, and your children will have the space to move with the full force of imagination, and enjoy the world building that it comes with.
One afternoon I had something to post for my job within 30 minutes, coincidentally and to my chagrin my kids also managed to want snacks right after I got my deadline. I grabbed a bag of frozen blueberries from the freezer, set it down to wash out 3 bowls and as soon as I turned around I saw flashes of pull-ups and achilles heels from my 3 year old that had taken the bag of frozen blueberries and absconded with them.
Admittedly my first reaction was to roll my eyes yet soon as I said “c’mere boy!” and chased him from the kitchen his giggle did something magical. We began both boisterously laughing as I chased him while he quickly danced on the couch with a toddler shuffle then dashed under the dining room table, then near the bookshelves and I finally caught him and grabbed him up with a big hug and demanded that he pass me those blueberries.
We both laughed as he looked up to me, grinned, and gave me the bag. I was able to sort the blueberries into bowls, pass them out to discerning children and then retire once again to my work laptop where I was able to make the posts. I wonder if the people reading them could tell that I smiled as I posted them.
My first reaction was feeling inconvenienced and interrupted. With reflection, I was reminded that capitalism is the interruption and play is a form of resistance and grounding. The thought of play should come first when my children make an inquiry for it.
In that moment I chose playfulness in a world that wants Black parents to prioritize stress and fear. I chose joy during a life that wants me to prioritize work over family. The medicine of not only observing, but being able to participate in, the wonder and imagination of children is a respite Black children and Black parents alike deserve always, especially now.
Play is medicine.
Play is a reminder.
Play is a connector.