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These are my thoughts, yo.

I Learned Not to Play in School

jasmine banks

Since we’ve been taught that our contribution to society is what can be extracted from us, the act of resistance becomes what can be poured into us that remains linked to our ancestors and liberation in order to fortify the things that Whiteness cannot claim.

Imperialist White Hetero-patriarchy power can steal and control the educational system but it cannot claim wonder, curiosity, and learning for its own. So then it becomes a radical act to teach Black young people to be curious, to marvel, to wonder, and to discover. I did not understand why I was unable to marvel. I thought it was trauma and depression. I’ve always been told that I had a problem with play.  

Dr. Wong sat across from me. Her pale skin was off-set with these orange brown freckles. Her glasses perched on her nose, slipping down, despite her efforts to push them up with her index finger over and over. She was way too zen for me. I really liked her and yet I hated her attempts to resolve the issues I’d arrived in her care for. She just kept telling me to play. “What do you on a regular basis that allows you to get lost in joy. What do you do that allows you lose track of time.” These questions seemed useless, as I was at her office for psychiatric care. I equated this to medication. I wondered aloud if depressed people enjoy such things. Maybe rich white depressed people did but not me, and certainly not the Black folks who raised me. She said continued to explain that Dr. so-and-so, her mentor, had a personality measurement of something or other that showed that those of us who are too pragmatic and practical needed more play and flow to create a balanced life and to find relief from our anxiety and depression. She wrote the prescription for Gabapentin and Strattera and on the back of her business card she scribbled her other prescription: discover something to get lost in and start a meditation practice. My worn green wallet was full of these cards. I would read every book assigned and take every pill prescribed but I didn’t know how to do the thing that Dr. Wong continued to extol as the answer for why my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms would not abate. 

I was taught not to play in school. This isn’t to say I was a child who played too much in school.  Truth be told, I was never much of child who played to begin with. The educational system was my first lesson in how to survive this world as a Black girl. The lessons were always nuanced. Not a single white teacher said to me aloud that free thinking was dangerous. Not a single white teacher told me that free thinking Black children were dangerous. They simply taught me these things by assigning me as the child who was disruptive, pot-stirring, and authority challenging. I was the kid with her hand in the air always. I was the kid who had follow up question after follow up question. I wanted to know but who said that is the way things are or should be? And if they said so who put them in charge and how and why.  I’d ask those questions they teach you that you should ask when you seek a degree in philosophy. If/then questioning is a necessary condition for discovery and learning.  Degrees in philosophy, however, are not meant for 5th grade children. When you are white they call you curious. When you are a poor Black girl being raised by a single parent they call you disruptive. The anxiety I experienced at an early age was the result of two competing needs. I needed to be curious and learn and I needed to feel accepted and safe. My world at home and at school was full of racialized trauma and abuse and so I chose safety and acceptance instead of curiosity and learning.  I attended school and did what they calling learning but truly what I was doing was accepting programing. I was being programmed to respond to and affirm the needs of an Imperialist White Hetero Patriarchy.  It became increasingly clear that curiosity and play (two true necessary conditions for learning) were not afforded to Black children without an immense amount of pain and vulnerability to attack in a system meant to program not to facilitate learning. The lessons were always taught by nice white women who loved my hair good hair, exotic complexion, and willingness to do extra credit.

The program was clear: accept proximity to whiteness, affirm whiteness, and be grateful for the reduction of violence in proximity. The inverse was to try to be a free Black girl inside a system that would demonize me, criminalize me, and keep me from succeeding in life. My family and friends who refused to bend to the will of that system ended up in a detention center or some other derivation of where those kids with too much of everything the world don’t want go. They were the bad kids, the hopeless ones, the ones who didn’t know how to sit still and channel their energy to affirm the system of white supremacy. They wouldn’t allow their power to be extracted that easily- and so they were removed and entered another system of programing.  

I made excellent grades, learned how to follow the rules well, and developed pride in discovering survival in the recapitulation of what the nice white women taught me. It was there that I learned that being the best student meant hating myself and my people, and so I did. Each question that bubbled up. Each moment that the feeling of there I something not right about what she taught me would bubble up, I’d suppress it. I’d shove it down and down and down until I could politely smile and ask the teacher if I could help file papers. The layers of all the things I could not say and the cognitive dissonance that resulted were just one layer in the anxiety cake that I gorged on. I learned to say no to drugs, just like Nancy wanted me to. I always read the extra assigned reading, and I wanted to be on the Principal’s honor roll. The ways of Whiteness taught to me in school was another brand of that addictive hetero-patriarchal capitalism. The habit of Whiteness that I was hooked on was a lethal as the crack that Nancy’s husband sold my people.

So, when Dr. Wong told me to play she had no idea she was asking met to both detox from the Whiteness I was addicted to while also releasing the safety I thought it provided me. I tried color in this coloring book. I didn’t like it. I felt stupid. What was the point? Were we going to sell the colored pages, Dr. Wong? I tried art journaling. I got distracted researching about the components of art journaling and the impact on the brain instead. At some point, there were bubbles and hula hoops, but that felt too Burning Man and though I was weaning myself off of Whiteness I wasn’t that addicted. If I went for a run or played volleyball or roller derby, all things I found pleasure in, I never felt the release of “play” because they had the specific assignment of helping me “be fit and control my weight”. The culture of White Supremacy is everywhere, y’all.

It wasn’t until I discovered play as a form of resistance in the service of Black Liberation that I was able to really feel what play was. Play and the components of play (wonder, curiosity, and creativity) became the vehicle for discovering the inherent power and joy in my Blackness. Stokely Carmichael taught us: “The society we seek to build among black people is not a capitalistic one. It is a society in which the spirit of community and of humanistic love prevail.”