Play as acts of anti-capitalism and anti-racism
Can we reclaim play and wonder to create change?
Content note: The fifth section of this post contains descriptions of racist violence against children.
This is my younger brother and me. That grin, that wink: joyful expressions of our small bodies hurtling through the streets of our Tokyo neighborhood. As we raced down the sidewalk, we imagined we might lift off and launch into the clear sky, and then land in a jungle echoing with the cries of dinosaurs. Or an ancient temple in a dark forest, haunted by ghosts and animal spirits. Or downtown Tokyo to face a rampaging monster.
When we couldn’t be outside, we spent hours pretending that a big cardboard box was a time and space travel device (often it was Doraemon’s dokodemo door), taking us to fields full of sunflowers and giant bugs, or to outer space to meet aliens, or to the plains of North America quaking under buffalo hooves.
My childhood was filled with hours of make-believe, magic, tales of shape-shifters and fairies. I slipped easily between the realms of truth and fantasy. I let my imagination, curiosity, and wonder run wild as I discovered the world around me. As a multiracial kid in Japan, my childhood had ample space to bloom.
I recently read an article about the feminist and magical origins of surfing in Hawai’i by surf historian Lauren Hill. She writes: “Surfing was of such value to early Hawaiians that it was forbidden to work or war during prime surf season.” Instead, people hit the surf for three months of “social bonding via play and playful competition.” Surfing was a vital component to social cohesion and happiness, and it was integral to myths, magic, and healing in Hawai’ian culture. As was the case for many peoples around the world, play was not separate from culture. Hill writes, “Play has been an essential part of human evolution because it opens up doors to creativity, spontaneity, and envisioning new ways of being in the world.”
But then came white missionaries and businessmen who wielded white supremacy, misogyny, and capitalism to colonize the Hawai’ian people and land.
Christian missionaries’ puritanical distaste for pursuits like nearly-nude wave riding, where men and women mingled amongst the slippery sea, meant an environment not permissive of surfing. But even more significant was the decimation that came from infectious disease and the introduction of the cash economy that squashed Hawaiians [sic] once ample leisure time.
White culture ripped away the time and ability for Hawai’ians to play. In this process of violent colonization, surfing almost became a lost art.
I almost can’t remember the last time I played. When did I do something simply and completely for the sake of fun and joy? Maybe that afternoon kayak trip my partner and I took last summer, or when I built a bonfire on the Equinox. I do a lot of things that I enjoy, but I rarely do something just for the sake of fun and not because it is also good for me, gets me exercising or breathing fresh air, teaches me something, or because it will lead to an outcome I want—like delicious tomatoes or a book of poetry.
I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t know many adults who play for the sake of play.
The other morning, I posted a video of my dog playing in the April snow, set to Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April.” I was amusing myself. I’ve been thinking about sea shanties and TikTok dance challenges as a form of fun and play for adults these days. But as I check Instagram a few minutes later to see how many people liked my reel, it’s clear that playing on social media is never just about fun. There’s the dopamine hit of another “like,” another follower. The platforms monetize our play, feeding into the capitalist mill of never-ending consumption.
Capitalism takes away play, commodifies wonder. The capitalist ethos turns time into money, all energy into production and consumption. Play becomes work, for both adults and children. The rise of the “playdate,” for example, has become another force for economic and racial inequities, documented by sociologist Tamara Mose in her examination of the “privatization of children’s play.”
My play as a child was inseparable from my belief in the wonder and magic of the world. I loved the world for its mysteries, even when they were frightening.
Although I’ve lost play, I haven’t yet lost wonder. Despite the April snowstorm, it’s the height of spring here in New England. Over the last month, I’ve witnessed the slow progression of the magnolias, cherry trees, dogwoods, lilacs, rhododendrons—budding, blooming, leafing out. Bare branches that scratched the grey sky all winter long turn slowly—and then overnight—into scented clouds of blossoms.
I’ve marveled at the bursting of hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips from the cold ground—declaring their survival and glory in brilliant shades of purple, yellow, red, and pink. I’ve planted broccoli, tomato, lettuce, mustard, and basil seeds, and watched tiny green shoots emerge under grow lights, so thin and tender. I marvel that in a few months, they will become thick stalks, spicy leaves, juicy fruit on the vine.
Connecting in this way to the cycles of nature keeps me in awe at the ways life survives and thrives. It reminds me I will never understand all of the mysterious forces of life and death. I will never know all the ways temperature and microbes and my breath and the movement of the sun and the moon intertwine and play together to bring about a gorgeous cherry tree or a riotous row of pea shoots.
But what good is wonder and awe at the natural world, when police keep killing Black and brown children? I think this as I look at pictures of Daunte Wright’s smiling, boyish face on social media, the video of him playing on the swings with his one-year-old son. I think this as I read about how 13-year-old Adam Toledo, killed by the Chicago police last month, still liked to play with Hot Wheels and Legos. I think of this as I watch Ma’Khia Bryant’s sweet and playful TikTok videos.
White supremacy strips Black children and other children of color in the United States not just of play, but of the whole concept of childhood and innocence. In 1973, a white cop in Queens, New York shot and killed 10-year old Clifford Glover. As Audre Lorde writes in “Power”:
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Four decades later, white Cleveland police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was playing outside with a toy gun. A grand jury failed to bring charges against the cops, and last year, the U.S. Justice Department decided not to bring charges, either. Only the color.
Then there’s the five-year-old American boy of Iranian descent, who, upon entering the country shortly after the former president’s executive order banning travelers from certain Muslim countries, was identified as a possible “threat.” Despite his age and American citizenship, the boy was reportedly handcuffed as he was held at Dulles Airport for five hours. The administration’s press secretary at that time declared: “To assume that just because of someone’s age and gender that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.” Only the color.
BIPOC children in the U.S. aren’t just robbed of their innocence in the incidents that make national headlines. It happens in small ways every day. In her book Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong describes being yelled at and having racial epithets hurled at her and her younger sister by a white man. They were shopping at the mall; she was thirteen and her sister was nine. She writes: “I had failed to protect my younger sister and I was helpless in my murderous rage against a grown man so hateful he was incapable of recognizing us as kids.” Only the color.
Sonya Renee Taylor, in her book The Body Is Not an Apology, writes: “How we value and honor our own bodies impacts how we value and honor the bodies of others…It is through our own transformed relationship with our bodies that we become champions for other bodies on our planet.”
I’m thinking this concept also applies to the sense of play and wonder that is all of our birthright. Humans are born knowing how to play; as infants, we are amazed as we discovered the world around us. For some, play and wonder are quickly stolen away. For others, we abandon them as we grow into adulthood.
What would happen if all of us on this planet honored, valued, and sought to rediscover the delight of the child we once were? Would we then be able to honor, value, and seek to protect all the children around us? Would we all be able to see children of color as children and not just their color?
I know there’s deep, systemic work to be done to end the racism that perpetuates the killing of Black and brown children by police and to end the perception of BIPOC children as threats. We must dismantle the prison industrial system and abolish the police and ICE. We must end white supremacy.
I wonder if, as part of that work, we can also reclaim play and wonder as antiracist, anti-capitalist acts. What would that look like? How can we engage in play, wonder, and delight for their own sake, while also working toward serious and radical change?
These are questions I don’t know how to answer, but I’m so curious about. So far, I’m thinking about adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism and the dance/art/play work of the Haus of Glitter in Providence, Rhode Island. (Check out their latest fundraiser). I’d love to know from you, dear reader: Do you do this? How? Or, are there other people thinking about play as ways to challenge and subvert white supremacy and capitalism? Who should I be reading or following?
Sometimes play can be poetry, poetry can be play. Anyone can do this prompt, even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer.
Find two to three articles about topics you care deeply about. Find hard-copy articles, or print them out. Cut out all the words that call to you. If you don’t have access to hard-copy versions, find online articles and copy/paste the words into a blank document. But this exercise works best when you can physically manipulate the words.
Spend some time playing: move the words around on a piece of blank paper, try out different combinations, angles, orientations. Maybe you want to also cut out photos or images and make a collage. Maybe you want to write in extra words or draw around the words. It doesn’t have to make sense or be profound. Go for fun, wonder, and delight.
When you feel happy with the arrangement, glue or tape down the words (and images).
Read it over a couple of times, maybe put it up somewhere where you can see it.
After a few days, burn, recycle, or delete your piece. Or leave it somewhere for a stranger to find (like in a library book). Don’t take a picture of it or hold on to it in any way. Let it go.
If you work with the Tarot, before you start this exercise, you might want to pull and meditate on the Fool, the Empress, the Star, the Sun, Four of Wands, Three of Cups, Ten of Cups, or any other card that speaks to you of joy and play. Invite that energy as you engage in this activity.
This whole line of inquiry began when I listened to Derek DelGaudio on the Politically Reactive podcast and watched his amazing show, In and Of Itself, which is a one-person drama with magic. I loved his reflections on how the kind of magic he performs can inspire people to believe—even for a second—that this world is wondrous and mysterious.
One of the ways I have experienced joy during the pandemic is watching the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performances. Ailey’s Night Creature is all play and joy and beauty. It’s streaming until tomorrow, Tuesday 4/27.
Following last month’s musings on living in language(s), I was entranced by this essay by Mirene Arsanios on editing and power (h/t to reader Amanda Goldblatt).
I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s reading (4/27) with a line-up of fellow poets published by Alice James Books at Greenlight Bookstore. Get your tickets here!
This week, I had a chance to talk with Amy Brady for her newsletter, “Burning Worlds: Climate Change in Art and Literature.” Here’s an excerpt:
Amy: What role do you think poetry plays in our larger conversations and thinking about climate and environmental issues?
Tamiko: Poetry invites us to think and feel expansively and nonlinearly, to listen closely, and be willing to be completely surprised. I can think of it as practice for how to implement solutions to the climate crisis. We need to listen to the people on the front lines who are already putting these solutions to work. We need to be expansive, radical, and unfettered by what we’re told is politically possible.
I’m also very excited for Shanta Lee Gander’s GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA to be released in June.
As collective memory within the Black diaspora has been ruptured, GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA time travels by creating and recapturing memory from a fractured past to survive in the present and envision a future. In her first full-length collection GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues, Shanta Lee Gander navigates between formal and vernacular styles to introduce the reader to a myriad of subjects such as scientific facts that link butterflies to female sexuality and vulnerability; whispers of classical Greek myth; H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastical creature, Cthulhu; and the traces of African mythmaking and telling. Gander leaves a door ajar in this ongoing conversation of the Black female body that walks the spaces of the individual within a collective; the tensions between inherited and hidden narratives; and the present within a history and future that is still being imagined. Order now!
That’s it from me for now. I’ll probably see you here on the new moon, May 11, but if not, definitely on May 26 for the full moon lunar eclipse! Until then, be well and tender with yourself.
As writers, anything we write can be play -- so I was reluctant to add the value of a "like" but then saw it as a pat on the head as a child scribbles madly with crayons. So glad I found your work. -- DWx