We Play Hard: Artists of Color on Play and Relaxation

Managing Editor’s Note: In this week’s guest post, Rochelle Spencer shares the importance and particular significance of play and joy in African-American lives. In a recent exhibit titled Let’s Play, held at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, California, the artists’ goal was “that we see play not as something frivolous but as something fundamental to having healthier lives–lives that represent the truth of our experience.” 


We Play Hard: Artists of Color on Play and Relaxation

by Rochelle Spencer

“As African Americans, when we play, we play hard,” says Johnnie Davis, Director of Serenity House, a program that provides services for women who have been raped or molested, and experience homelessness, and/or mental health or emotional issues, tells me inside Serenity House’s ocean-colored walls.  “It’s hard for us to relax and play,” Johnnie continues. “Our play isn’t gentle because we come in with all this anger from what happened at work and the outside world. When we play, we hit the ball hard. We’re always attempting to channel anger and disappointment into play.”

Davis, author of Bent, Not Broken, is part of the exhibit, Let’s Play, which ran June 2 through June 29 at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, California. The exhibit featured artists and writers of color exploring the idea of play in black and Afro-Latino communities in Oakland, Jamaica, and Panama.  Women, so often serving as muses, represent more than 60% of the Let’s Play artists. (And maybe having people of color and women examine the role of pleasure in their lives is more revolutionary than it appears: one male artist, whose work does not appear in the exhibit, has already called the gallery to complain.)

In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes that “to really transform our society, we will need to make justice one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have.” As I curated this exhibit, I wanted to explore brown’s idea–there can be joy in creating change and forming genuine connections with people. The idea for Let’s Play sprouted in 2016, when the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop held our first Pop-Up creativity and writing workshop at a bus stop. This exhibit featured art from the Kiss My Black Arts Collective, which replicated images that appear in a well-known mural on Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue, alongside news articles about engaging in play and attempting to have fun. The exhibit also featured work from Jacqueline Bishop, Jewelle Gomez, Sharan Strange, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Victor LaValle, Renee Alexander Craft, Kyla Marshell, James Lee, Sheree Renée Thomas, and AfroSurreal Writers Workshop members Dera R. Williams and Thaddeus Howze.

The author with Audrey T. Williams and Thaddeus Howze, two Co-Directors of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop

The hope of the exhibiting artists is that we see play not as something frivolous but as something fundamental to having healthier lives–lives that represent the truth of our experience. Marshell, a poet who received an Academy of American Poets College Prize and Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, contributed an audio projection to the Play exhibit. Marshell sees play as a way “for black people to be fully ourselves without concern for how white people perceive us. Black people are no more serious than any other racial group, but there is often more at stake for how we comport ourselves in the world.”

Sheree Renée Thomas, the author of Shotgun Lullabies: Stories and Poems (Aqueduct Press, 2011) and the editor of the Dark Matter anthologies, contributed a piece, the Origins of Southern Spirit Music, which describes the magic of music in the black community. Dera R. Williams, the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop’s Time Capsule Director, has a recording, “Piece-a-Ways,” about “how when you walk your friends half way back home, and then they walk you half way back home, you form those friendships.”

Dera R. Williams, Time Capsule Director

The complexity of these pieces resists what Marshell describes as “the primary image of black people being one of suffering. Play, leisure, and fun are part of all of our lives. It’s important to remember that we are full people who enjoy the full spectrum of human emotion.”

And in times when people are under emotional or financial stress, play may be especially important. Davis’s clients, some of whom have experienced sexual trafficking and other forms of abuse “can be afraid of being rejected, of being around other people…But we all need play and relaxation,” Davis says.

One Serenity House trip centered on “popcorn and a fun, kid’s movie–there are a lot of kid’s movies in Oakland and Emeryville,” Davis adds.  “The end of the movie was so much fun. I asked one of the women about the experience, and she told me it was ‘complete joy’ …and opening doors for the community, that’s my joy.”

Photo Credits: Rochelle Spencer 


ROCHELLE SPENCER holds an MFA from New York University, and she is the co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Rochelle has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and has served as a Curator-in- Residence at Pro Arts Gallery. Rochelle is a VONA alum, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop, and a former board member with the Hurston Wright Foundation.

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