Running towards the imaginative: My Journey Back to Play

S. R. Toliver

I have always loved the speculative: science fiction and fantasy books that took readers to far away futures and imaginary otherworlds, role-playing video games (RPGs) where players could assume the roles of magical characters and journey through enchanted worlds; movies that allowed viewers to remove themselves from their immediate realities even if it was just for an hour or two. There was something special about the speculative, something creative and inspiring that I just couldn’t access with realistic texts. For those brief moments, I could release reality and play in an alternate space where my imagination could roam free without the restraints that come with living in the real world. 

I say I have always loved this genre because I’m not sure where my affection for the futuristic and fantastic began. It might have been watching television shows like The Secret World of Alex Mack, a sci-fi television series where a teenage girl is accidentally drenched in a dangerous chemical and granted various powers, including telekinesis, electricity manipulation, and liquefication. Maybe it started with the reading of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, a story about a bored little boy who receives a magical tollbooth that transports him to a faraway kingdom where he learns how to see the magic in the world around him. Perhaps, it was playing Spyro the Dragon, one of my first RPGs where I could assume the role of the titular purple dragon tasked with freeing my fellow dragons from crystal prisons throughout Dragon Kingdom. With so many entry points, I can no longer isolate the impetus for my love of the speculative. I just know that it’s there. That it’s always been there. That it will always be here. 

And yet, even though I consider my fondness for the speculative a major aspect of my social identity, I used to hide it when I crossed over schooling thresholds, especially as I got older. In elementary school, I dreamed alongside my peers and the teacher. Then, in middle and high school, dreaming was considered too juvenile. We eschewed narrative and imaginative writing so argumentative and explanatory writing could take hold. We read some speculative stories (e.g., Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984), but we avoided conversations about genre and focused our scholarly discussions on what mattered: the story’s connection to reality. From these experiences, I learned that the speculative was not academic, for scholarship was reserved for realism, mimetic materiality. There was no room for imagination, creativity, play… at least, not in a way that felt freeing, unrestricted. Sadly, this feeling of imaginative confinement lasted throughout my undergraduate and graduate schooling, so much so that when I entered the doctoral program, I had forgotten what it meant to play, to create, to dream. 

I remember my first semester in the doctoral program and how it seemed as though every one of my peers had a research interest, a scholarly endeavor that brought them joy (or, at least, some semblance of happiness). They discussed the names and works of seemingly important scholars like they were friends, but those researchers were strangers to me. They talked about education in terms of assessment, pedagogical practice, and student behavior, and although it seemed fascinating, I was not drawn to any of those ideas. I wanted to think about imagination, creativity, play—how Black speculative texts can be used in the classroom; how and why students and teachers should engage their imaginations in schools; how Black children engage in communal and home literacy practices that centralize their dreams. But the scholars admired by so many of my peers didn’t do that work, and weren’t centralizing those topics. My classes weren’t highlighting those ideas. And, because I had forgotten how to create, when one of my professors told me to “play in the sand” to figure out my research interest, I had no idea what to do, who to search for, what scholars to read. 

Somehow, in my distress, I found the scholarship of Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a children’s literature scholar who was, at the time, faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work spoke to me in ways that so much of the other literature I studied could not. She questioned the metaphors by which we read Black children and challenged how Black youth are consistently left out of imaginative narratives (unless they are the monsters, of course). She was unabashedly unafraid to talk about her love of Star Trek and Tolkien and how that love influenced who she was as a scholar. She wrote traditional articles, but she also talked about her struggles and triumphs to one day become an author of young adult literature. Her openness to embrace the part of herself that some would deem ‘un-academic’ gave me hope, forced me to journey inward and find that girl I had shunned because academia (from 6th grade and beyond) told me there was no room for her in this adult world. Her story let me know that there was more scholarly rigor and educational success than tradition, than reality. Her decision to hold tightly to her dreams despite the confinements of academia showed me that I could dream, create, and play even in a field that seemed rather stilted, held captive by white historical conceptions of tradition. Her presence as a mentor and fellow admirer of the speculative genres helped me to see that there was room for me in this field. 

With scholarly mentorship, I began to dream anew, and to imagine an academic world where imaginative play was possible. I tiptoed into this space by first studying speculative texts written by Black women and featuring Black girls. I hoped that the articles resulting from my studies would help teachers to find and teach the books I longed to have in middle and high school. I hoped that teaching these texts would help other secondary students know that there is space for imagination and dreaming beyond elementary school. Of course, in those writings, I held tightly to ‘scholarly conventions’ and engaged in an academic practice my professors and anonymous journal reviewers would accept, but it was more connected to who I am and who I wanted to be as a scholar. Then, after years of conducting book studies, I began a dissertation where, rather than study the works of published and well-marketed authors, I analyzed the speculative writing of Black girls. I pulled myself even further toward the speculative by rejecting a more traditional format of dissertation writing and opting for one that was speculative and lively, one that resembled the speculative texts I loved as a child. Rather than run from the speculative as I did in my youth, I ran toward the imaginative. 

It has been four years since the writing of my dissertation, and in this time, I’ve begun to fully embrace speculative play. I have continued to read speculative fiction written by Black authors as well as other authors of color. I have continued to watch movies and television shows that highlight imaginative and futuristic worlds. I have dusted off my gaming consoles and have started to play RPGs again. Beyond my social world, I have also embraced the speculative in my academic life. I no longer restrict myself to traditional academic writing, especially when speculative stories are better suited to convey a specific idea, finding, or theory. I have forced myself to remember the childhood me, the little Black girl who loved to dream, to play, to create. I have forced myself to consider what I need to do each and every day to make that little girl proud of who she has become. 

Still, although I am forever grateful that I made a way back to myself, I also know that my journey back to play and imagination as an adult wasn’t an easy one. Play can be scary, especially for those of us who have learned that if we want to ‘make it’ in academia, we must get serious and ignore our playful impulses. However, without imagination and creativity, academia will become stagnant. Our scholarship will speak to the few folks in academia who are willing to read boring, often over-long treatises about niche topics, but we will lose everyone else. With play, however, we can open new worlds and alternative futures; we can assume the roles of guides, helping readers through enchanted worlds full of theories and methods; we can assist people in thinking of the possibilities of “what can be” versus the realities of “what is.” If the goal of academia is to change the world for the better, we must use our imaginations to dream of what those better worlds might be. We must engage in speculative play in hopes that readers will dream alongside us. We must make space to dream otherwise, to create the futures we seek. We must continue to imagine, dream, and play in this academic world. If not for our current selves, then for the former dreamers we so often leave behind.