Who Are You?
If we are what we do then who are you?
Are you who you say you are?
Are you the same when you are sleeping? When the world is sleeping?
When the lights are off?
In the dark?
Are you alive when you are dreaming?
In the light?
Who are you when no one watches?
Who are you when no one knows?
Are you the same?
Are you living who you’re meant to be?
Or are you living who they say you are?
Self and other?
One and another?
All or none?
Pandemic Symptoms and Systems
“… for there are times when disobedience heals a very ailing part of the self. It relieves the human spirit’s distress at being forced into narrow boundaries. For the nearly powerless, defying authority is often the only power available.” ―Malidoma Patrice Somé1
“Slow down. Inhale peace. Exhale worry,” I’ve had to remind myself. The more chaotic everything gets, the more peace I try to create for myself and what is within my power. Writing has become an outlet for articulating and releasing the many feelings that come up, while family has been a way for me to be in community, and solitude has been my way of harnessing peace. All of these are conscious acts of self-love.
I am Jarrel. I am a teacher, performer, and all-around artist., Despite the COVID-19 pandemic putting a lot of that on pause, I still am all these things. Life has slowed down and I can feel again. But, I feel stuck. How could peace solve the chaos and unrest that was happening outside of my home in the wake of what has been referred to as a “twin pandemic”: racism and COVID at once?2 I am quarantined and stuck in the house, yet it’s so hard not to let the outside in. I am witnessing many Americans wrestle with a loss of what they call their human rights while physical violence on our Black bodies continues to reflect disregard for our lives and humanity. Our protests are referred to as riots as society looks on in contempt and outrage at the sight of damaged property, rather than acknowledge the corruption and disregard for human life.
So much has slowed down, and yet, so much has taken place, causing so many of us to make life-changing decisions. Perhaps we are all beginning to feel again? Maybe we are all getting more in touch with what’s real and what matters? All I know is that a revolution is coming and not just outside in the streets. I reckon that I am in my own revolution as well and it is not to be televised. It is for me and for me only. June ramped me up and then slowed me down once more. “Slow down. Inhale peace. Exhale worry,” I told myself. It was peace that I needed for me within my own constitution.
Compelled by outrage. Driven by compassion. I was reminded of these sentiments many times. Channeling my stress, my frustrations, and my anger through self-compassion and creativity, I attempted to embrace the inevitable: change and uncertainty. I wrote even more during this time and the more I wrote, the more the word ‘well-being’ came up.
It’s been said that hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people. Where do you hurt? What pain are you holding on to? How do you release? How do you reconcile and heal? In many ways, I am just beginning to recognize many of the discomforts and problems I had blocked out due to the business of daily life and distractions. I recognize how simple pleasures like travel, social media, talking on my phone, or social drinking were routines that become escapes. I notice how the creative outlets and projects that allowed me to express and explore my individuality were so easily put on the back burner and forgotten. I realize much of my significance and identity relied on who I was to others or who they expected me to be. I feel the relief of anxiety and pressures that the busy-ness of my everyday life had masked. As Bell Hooks writes, “many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”3
The distractions were fading in my personal life, but the outside world was inflamed with new problems rising to the surface constantly and consistently. “What’s the point of being good, when the world isn’t?” I thought. I was reminded of my temper many times. “Don’t let them break you down. Slow down. Inhale peace. Exhale worry,” I reminded myself.
“When you hold on to your pain you stay in it. When you hold on to their pain, they stay in it. To be free of what was, you have to say what will be so you don’t keep creating what was.” —Tom LaGrone, my grandfather
“Who cares if it all burns? This place needs to be rebuilt anyway,” I thought. I wanted to be reckless. I wanted to break something too. “We are peaceful people unless provoked,” I wrote. We want peace. I want peace. June was the final straw and a lot was coming to the surface. My brothers, cousins, and I decided that as Black men during this time we should come together as much as possible. There were anywhere between two and eight of us gathering at any given moment, sometimes multiple times a day, whether via phone call or in person. We decided to prioritize one another and our well-being in mind, body, and spirit.
We were unpacking all that we had been holding on to, all that was weighing us down. We affirmed ourselves and showed up for one another almost daily throughout the month of June because we needed that solidarity. In order to be the men we wanted to be, we needed to allow ourselves to be human first. We would be one another’s witnesses. We were getting to know each other and ourselves beyond our social conditioning. We were undoing the expectations by which we had been defined and confined. We talked about the burdens and expectations we carry for ourselves as men:
- Don’t cry; always be tough and strong; don’t ask for help;
- Provide, even at your own expense;
- Be serious, but make a joke of everything;
- Don’t be wrong and if you are you can’t admit it; vulnerability is weakness; the world is waiting for you to mess up and make an example out of you;
- Being gentle and kindhearted is gay and that is also not a good thing;
- Sexualize and conquer everything because you’re a real man;
- Survive; making money is your top priority;
- Therapy is for broken people and you can’t admit that you have things to fix.
We discussed our problems beyond conventionally and socially acceptable boundaries, affirming that it is ok to cry and to ask for help. We talked about having fun, relaxing, and not being so driven by work or money. We talked about economics as well as our family legacy and values. We talked about our own dreams and aspirations. We talked about our own personal concerns and affairs. Of course, we also joked around and talked mess to each other like we always do.
We came together, both assembling and reassembling ourselves. We were healing. With dis-ease, the body must sweat, sneeze, vomit, have bowel movements, get rashes, and do anything else necessary to bring to the surface, flush out, and release waste or harm. We were clearing out our bodies beyond the physical sense.
In attempts to protect ourselves—socially, emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually—we often adapt and compromise who we are without even realizing. As men, we’re always supposed to be tough, an attribute of the warrior archetype. But warriors are creators and explorers, too. Within us there is also the king who serves as he leads, the lover who nurtures as he protects, and the magician, or trickster, who imagines as he creates and transforms. One of our modern-day tricksters, Dave Chapelle, shared some wise words from his mother when receiving the Mark Twain award last year: “Sometimes you have to be a lion in order to be the lamb that you truly are.”4 In the nature of the trickster who plays with words and meaning, I believe that concept to be true, as stated here and also in reverse: Sometimes you have to be a lamb to be the lion that you truly are. Our power and strength lie in our true nature. If we hold on to anything else for too long, we become imbalanced and burdened with the weight of the world; our power becomes muted.
“Gentleman” is the word that comes to mind—gentle and man. COVID has allowed many of us to once again see ourselves beyond the roles we have played and fulfilled for ourselves and others. It is that manly and gentle part of who we are that we must nurture and get to know so that we don’t lose ourselves to all the chaos of what is going on outside of us. COVID allowed me to step out of my teaching role and be of greater service to my own personal needs. As a teacher, I am loving, compassionate, nurturing, gentle, generous, protective, playful, active, discerning, expressive, value-driven, explorative, and boundary-oriented. Now I am working on giving to myself all the things I have been giving to my students.
“Solitude is not the absence of company, but the moment when our soul is free to speak to us and help us decide what to do with our life.” ―Paulo Coelho5
My mother said to me, some time towards the beginning of COVID, “Cocooning allows you to arm yourself against a society that thinks you’re no good.” I recently took an intentional week of solitude to reconnect with myself. No social media, lots of quiet time, meditation, reading, and no unnecessary socializing. I could take work and family calls as necessary but my objective was to keep conversations, if any, to a bare minimum. It was an opportunity to reset and reconnect with my own rhythm, be with myself beyond the roles I play, and have a little peace and solitude. I had a true week to myself. I listened to music, danced, wrote, cooked, cleaned, took early morning walks, meditated, and organized my ideas. I did a lot of the things I loved with me, myself, and I.
This was one of the many teaching tools that I had not yet given to myself. Every class I teach begins with what I call “a moment to self.” In the first ten minutes of every class, the students do whatever they need to do to bring themselves fully into the classroom space. This usually entails getting all their wiggles out, socializing with friends—playing and/or talking, eating a snack, getting water, going to the bathroom, sitting still, or working on something specific that they enjoy practicing. This gives me the opportunity, as their teacher, to observe them individually to see what the group energy and dynamic is looking like, check in with students as necessary, help a student with a specific skill that we are not working on as a group, and gauge what may or may not be a good idea for the class, all based on how they enter and settle. Moreover, this allows each individual to come in with as much of themselves as possible, because we are working with the whole self—mind, body, and soul. While we are working with the part of ourselves that wants to practice Capoeira or be with our friends, we are more than that part as well. When we play, we flow and are present in the moment. So by the time class begins we are ready to move, both as a collective and in relationship to one another, while remaining in alignment with our playful spirit, our body, and ourselves.
“Even as progressives, we don’t think about how to experience the universe through pleasure. And the problem is that fun and leisure have become the domain of white people. And that’s how white supremacy works. It disconnects ourselves from our bodies, so that we grow to believe we are only here to be productive citizens. But our lives have value regardless of how ‘productive’ we are.” —Favianna Rodriguez6
A playful spirit is the true nature of life and of all of humanity, not just children. That’s why we continue to try on many roles. That’s the trickster—storyteller and role-player. By the time we are adults we have worn so many hats, played so many roles, disguised ourselves in so many masks that we have forgotten who we are at our core. The trick is to re-member. That playful spirit allows us to transform ourselves, problem-solve, and reimagine our environments as needed. In African-American lore, the tricksters—seen in Brer Rabbit, Anansi the Spider, and the Signifyin’ Monkey—are all heroes known for their ability to outwit bigger opponents, cross barriers into forbidden territories, and break the rules of their oppressors. Our ability to tap into this creative power opens up realms of possibility while tapping into the problem-solver and peace-maker in all of us—our peace.
Actively loving and nurturing ourselves are things that fade with childhood; as we grow, we are trying on roles and exploring who we are. That’s what play and pleasure are all about: loving ourselves by doing what we love. While playing, we tap into our truest nature. If we are in our truest nature, we are aligned and grounded in our truest self. When we do this, we embody the joy and freedom that exudes from children, our most lighthearted friends, and our funny family members. We are all older versions of our younger selves. Many of us are still navigating this world with coping mechanisms, behaviors, and identities from childhood that no longer serve us. We must not only shed, but also recreate ourselves with a new vision and purpose that align with who we say we are or want to be now.
Finding and creating pleasure is a superpower and an act of self-care that grounds and uplifts our spirit. When pleasure and play become an attitude and approach to life, we can transform and transcend the mundane and the arduous—even if just for a moment.
Movement and Consciousness
“Black Consciousness is in essence the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their operation—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.” —Steve Biko7
Movement is consciousness—perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and awareness—expressed through action. The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, Pan-Africanism, the Black Liberation Movement, #BlackLivesMatter, and Ethnic Studies in schools are all movements centered around consciousness-building and grounded in principles of self-love, human rights, and community values. Through movement, we embody and act on what inspires and invigorates our soul, manifesting spirit into consciousness and becoming our own light in the dark. When participating in our rich heritage, we actively bridge traditional and contemporary value systems by continuing the legacy from one movement to the next.
Like stars, truths are universal. This is why I believe we can learn from anyone and their experience. There is so much to learn from Black people who have lived this COVID reality before COVID:
- Taking precautions when leaving the house
- Fearing death due to means beyond our control
- Suffering police violence
- Undergoing social division and isolation
- Living with constant social pressure
- Having to be “strong” while feeling uncertain
This learning can feel like a burden and a curse, but I see the gift too: the humanity, the compassion, the brilliance emerging in a world that does not seem to recognize our existence and lived reality. This is who we are even in the dark when no one is looking and we go unseen. We hold true to who we are because we have always had to see ourselves.
About 13 years ago, at 20 years old, I began to notice that I was running into students and their families everywhere I went. I felt burdened with a responsibility to always be on my best behavior. I was a young adult and still wanted to fool around, so I wore the responsibility like a curse. I was unable to see the gift: We are all teachers, we are all role models, and we are all students. As a Black man in the world, it feels like someone is always watching in admiration, fear, contempt, and dismissal all at once. Now, whether one is watching or not makes no difference to me. I am still everything I was and more. I am a teacher; playing that role fulfills a great part of me, especially as I give my gift to myself. I use curiosity as a tool to face my fears of the unknown, my imagination as a counter to rigid logic, and my creativity to overcome the frustrations of internalized oppression. As I continue to move ahead, expand, and reach out, I do my best to consciously take moments purely for myself, tap into my playful spirit, be still, and do the work within myself to continue fostering my light and creating peace. I love and honor the dark places in myself, for they are sacred and filled with possibilities to explore. The shifts I want to see must begin with myself.
So watch if you will. I’ll be doing me.
We Are What We Do?
I be who I am
I move how I move
Understood yet indescribable
I just do what I do
I am unless I’m not
I will unless I won’t
I can’t because I ain’t
I do unless I don’t
I am a walking contradiction.
A contradiction walking.
Everything I am not and
Nothing that I am talking.
Human and everything beyond and in between.
Rooted and becoming
Doing and performing
Always and in all ways
Inspired and in spirit
In peace and love
In solitude and solidarity
With me, myself, and I.
…and then you.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde8
Jarrel Phillips is an educator, journalist, curator, and performing artist from San Francisco. Phillips uses film, photography, writing, and movement as mediums for sharing, connecting, and documenting our stories. His work emphasizes folkloric arts and oral storytelling, especially within the African diaspora and its global presence and influence. Phillips explores heritage, values, and community through a social-cultural lens. He pulls from his own life experiences as a San Francisco native and world traveler. He believes our individual and collective stories build bridges across cultures and communities and spark dialogue that inspires personal and collective growth and transformation.
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- Malidoma Patrice Somé, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman (New York: Penguin Books, 1994). ↩
- Sue Kolod, “The Twin Pandemics of Racism and COVID-19,” Psychology Today, June 16, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psychoanalysis-unplugged/202006/the-twin-pandemics-racism-and-covid-19. ↩
- bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 140. ↩
- Dave Chapelle, Dave Chappelle: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Netflix, March 31, 2020, www.netflix.com/title/81214015. ↩
- Paulo Coehlo, Manuscript Found in Accra (New York: Penguin Random House, 2013), 29. ↩
- Cited in Steven Thrasher, “Black in Black Rock City,” Contexts, October 6, 2015, https://contexts.org/blog/black-in-black-rock-city/. ↩
- Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (Cambridge: Cambridge: ProQuest LLC, 2005), 49. ↩
- Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988), 131. ↩