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“You Play Too Much,” Pleasure Without Permission In A Capitalist Society

Play, pleasure, and rest aren’t considered vital to our livelihood because labor to maintain capitalism is framed as our fundamental purpose.

By Kendriana Washington

For centuries, free will and its playfulness have threatened conventionality and stirred fear in the seat of power. Shortsighted perceptions of play consider it immature, selfish, and rooted in distraction or avoidance, but pleasure is therapeutic; it heals stress, anxiety, and supports mental wellbeing. 

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to control my access to play. Playtime was a luxury, and if I wanted to engage in anything that gave me joy, I had to earn permission. Pleasure was won through endurance, labor, and the approval of others. As a dark-skinned Black femme, this often meant taking up as little space as possible and performing without question. These early experiences with scarcity and adultification keep many Black children from forming a play practice by first requiring proof of worthiness. As an adult, I’ve found that access to pleasure is stratified by class, appearance, and ability; we are actively conditioned to believe that play must be earned. This year, I sought to make play a part of my social practice, and its benefits have saved me.

Play, pleasure, and rest aren’t considered vital to our livelihood because labor and production to maintain capitalism are framed as our fundamental purpose. This idea was enforced at home, in the classroom, workplace, and communal spaces, ultimately following me into adulthood as a form of self-deprivation. While white women spent the last decade centering “self care,” I was repeating years of conditioning from people and institutions who used power to withhold play and get me to perform more labor. 

I’d tell myself that I couldn’t experience the things that gave me joy unless I was a servant to others. Through childhood training and observing the treatment toward dark-skinned Black femmes in my community, I was taught that the consistent prioritizing of self is overly indulgent, pleasure without a tangential benefit to others is harmful, and regular solo playtime is frivolous – out of the question for any adult non-man. 

When I learned to define my purpose beyond capitalist interests, I was able to envision a livelihood that exists outside my value as an object of plutocratic objectification and what little I acquire from it. I made ongoing and unapologetic space for playtime. I rejected requests for unrequited energy and distanced myself from those who couldn’t process the idea of a dark-skinned Black femme setting clear boundaries and asserting their worth by refusing to comply with the social norm of grinding through servitude in exchange for validation. I treat playtime as a sacred ritual, and when my days are steeped in relentless misogynoir, acts of play are what rescue me. I define my playtime, and there are no restrictions except that it is reserved for uninhibited self-focused pleasure.

This year I started longboarding; when I skate, the wind combs through my crochets, lifts my board, and as I swerve through the streets – I escape. I release time and place, becoming fully engaged with the feel of the present. I forget about passive-aggressive emails from people who don’t pay my invoices on time, intrusive comments from family, or the daily anti-Black misogynist disrespect I navigate online and in public spaces. Texts and DMs from niggas who expect everything but have little to offer slip from my memory as I glide between bliss and commanding liberation. While my playtime may be radical, it isn’t rooted in resistance work; it’s founded on my irrefutable human right to joy.

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In our collective effort to cope with magnified pressure from nationwide restrictions and decades of socialized oppression and state violence breeding without reprieve, Black people have become bolder about our need for play. We’re collectively making room for deliberate playtime and encouraging playfulness within each other; most notably, this year has seen a resurgence in nostalgic leisure. Black folks are indulging in classic sitcoms, virtual performances from Black cultural icons, and celebrating our rich legacy of roller skating.

By making play a permanent social practice and framing it outside of capitalist reward and performativity, we further dislodge our pleasure from objectification. We actively envision Black livelihoods separate from paternalist systems and allow ourselves to draft Black futures that aren’t centered around our usefulness to powerful entities and the state. When we engage in small, daily acts like play, we reclaim our autonomy and its devices. Our liberation is affirmed not only through dismantling the constructs that oppress us but also by brazenly stepping into the experiences that we’ve been denied, living most authentically, and discovering that our basic state of being has more than enough purpose.

Kendriana is a writer and artist from the US South curating brazen digital media about futurism, culture, and Black femme autonomy. Ongoing projects include freelance, playwriting as a cohort for the National Black Theatre in Harlem, and Future Femme Text. Follow Kendriana @futurefemmetext on Instagram and Twitter for adventure content, dope visuals, and ideas. You can also find their work at kendriana.com.

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