October 27, 2020

A Traveler's Mind

Jarrel Phillips (left) and Ethiopian artist Maitre Afewerk Tekle (right) at Tekle's home in Addis Ababa. Photo: Edwin Johnson.

Jarrel Phillips (left) with Maitre Artiste World Laureate Afewerk Tekle at Tekle’s home in Addis Ababa. Photo: Edwin Johnson.

“I am going home to the motherland,” I thought.

This was my first trip to Africa — we were headed to Ethiopia, with a layover in Cairo. I awoke at about 4 a.m. to the pilot’s announcement that we would be landing soon. From my window, I saw lights and a highway. Puzzled and still half-asleep, I turned to my friend and asked him where we were. Egypt — I hadn’t heard the pilot wrong. “That looks just like our highway system in San Francisco,” I thought, “and there’s so much light. Do they have electricity?” My preconceived ideas about Africa were being dispelled at the very same time I was becoming aware I had them. With heightened senses and curiosity, I entered an unfamiliar world — an experience for which I’ll be forever grateful.

In Ethiopia, I didn’t stay in a hotel. I almost never do, preferring to stay among local communities in hopes of immersing myself in unfamiliar places and cultures. My friend and I rented an apartment in Gotera Condominium, a neighborhood in Addis Ababa full of high-rises similar to projects in New York. I hung outside every day, and just like when I’m home in San Francisco, I connected with a lot of young people. They yelled for me outside my window every morning. Because of the language barrier, we couldn’t talk much but we found common ground: hip hop, soccer in the streets, teasing and joking.

One of the first Amharic words I learned was መጫወት, which means “play.” We always played between the building where I stayed and the market where we did our grocery shopping (we kept our refrigerator stocked with injera, eggs, and cinnamon tea; an instant favorite of mine). I made friends with Netsanet and Yibekal, the couple who owned the market, and they agreed to store a gift I left for the kids: two professional soccer balls, which we decided should stay at the shop to prevent unnecessary conflict. It was my way of saying thank you for the friendships we’d built through play.

Jogo de Facão.

Jogo de Facão.

As a teacher and artist who works mostly with young people, a lot of what I do revolves around play. I always tell my students, “We practice to play. Work hard. Play harder.” In Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, you practice drills, techniques, and situations in order to apply what you’ve learned inside the roda, or wheel. In the roda, two practitioners improvise and exchange movements, showing and testing one another’s skills in conversation with live music. It’s essentially our way of sparring, but we call it “playing.” Play is a crucial social tool, allowing one to build strong relationships while recognizing and exploring boundaries to exercise one’s creativity. As Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” I have learned a lot (about myself and others) in my five trips to Ethiopia.

Travel has granted me the ability to see and experience myself beyond social norms and mainstream constructs — my own, and my country’s. My trips allow me to continuously and actively reconcile what W. E. B. Du Bois refers to as the “double self” or “double consciousness” — a split consciousness which socially and psychologically challenges Black Americans to see ourselves as both American citizens and Black people within a racist society. This double awareness is a gift and a curse: we are highly self-aware and socially conscious of others and our surroundings, yet this knowledge can be divisive, creating internal conflict as we strive to see ourselves beyond the pervasively negative vision of Black people created by the outside world.

Gotera Condominium. Photo: Jarrel Phillips.

Gotera Condominium. Photo: Jarrel Phillips.

Ethiopia is where I started to consciously let go of behavioral patterns and constructs that no longer served me, so that I could make space for new ones. I call it the “re-creation process”: exploring who I am, the roles I play, my character, and my purpose. One of my roles is to tell stories that honor our brilliance and highlight our human nature. Through film and photography I share my experiences in hopes of spreading joy; it is imperative that we make a habit of finding and experiencing joy in our everyday lives. I strive to counterbalance dominant narratives of despair that impede our ability to see ourselves beyond frameworks of victimhood and powerlessness. Joy reveals our true nature. It is a catalyst for growth and healing, transforming the mundane, the arduous, and the uncertain into gold.

I enjoy and take advantage of my ability to move through myriad communities and connect with so many people in San Francisco: family and friends; Black art collectives; performance scenes; the Capoeira world; circus communities; educators; social justice groups; healers’ networks. Through my reconciliation process I have found that there are far more than just two parts to who I am and I have a different world for all of them. It’s as though I’m traveling all the time. In many parts of the city, Black people seem almost non-existent. Growing up, I hardly knew these places existed — the lack of awareness goes both ways. I refer to these places as the other world; while othering is generally understood as a stigmatizing social process, I understand it to articulate both how I am seen as other and how I in turn see others as other. I have come to recognize self and other as polarities like big and small, freedom and resistance — opposites, but not adversaries. The same logic applies to my many selves. We separate and compartmentalize the whole world and then fail to see it as a whole again. I prefer to build bridges, making connections within myself and, when possible, with others.

Still, it’s tricky. If this society has any values at all, Black lives aren’t one of them. We get cops called on us for no reason at all. Just ask Christian Cooper. In the other world, people often do not know how to act when they see a Black person (or anything seemingly “foreign” or “unfamiliar” for that matter).  I recently saw a CNN headline: “There’s one epidemic we may never find a vaccine for: fear of black men in public spaces.” I can spot the discomfort a mile away; sharpened by experience, this ability is an essential tool for me so that I am not the next Emmett Till, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, or George Floyd. When I am in the other world, I have to be smart because it is easy to get distracted, lost or stuck in someone else’s story or perception of who I am. Within one city block I can be tokenized, romanticized, objectified, and villainized. Cops pull up behind me to read my license plate; when I’m walking, they slow down to check me out. Almost every time I walk into a nice restaurant I’m asked if I’m there for a Postmates delivery pick-up. Shop owners run to shut and lock their door when they see me coming. People even play with my locs without permission (instead of pulling away I return the favor and play in their hair; they get the message within seconds). The one that gets to me is being referred to as a “unicorn” or “the last Black man in San Francisco” — even by other Black people — when someone learns that I was born here. My response is always the same: There’s Black people here, you just got to know where to find us. Yet I often feel it’s best that those people don’t.

I read another article recently, “Racism and Covid-19 Are a Lethal Combination,” which addresses systemic victim blaming of Black and brown Americans. Even now, Blacks are being harassed for wearing face masks as recommended by our government during this coronavirus crisis. I definitely have my reservations about wearing one, especially at night. My status, my humanity, is constantly on trial, especially as I’ve become the outsider in a city full of transplants that I was born in.  In many ways, I feel freer when I travel abroad, and not just to the places that are predominantly Black. Though, it is nice to blend in for a change. Maybe it’s because I’m just a guest, so the “rules” of that social system don’t necessarily apply to me. Or maybe it’s because I know my time there is temporary, so I don’t feel stuck. Even then my experiences abroad aren’t perfect, as “traveling while Black” is a global reality. One night I was in an Uber in São Paulo, when a cop pulled us over. He wanted nothing to do with the driver, and everything to do with bothering me, the passenger, a Black figure with locs — more than enough to racially profile. The cop only left me alone once he heard me speak and realized I was from the US. I remember thinking, “So they save their bullshit for the local Black people, just like back home.”

I travel outside of the Americas to maintain my sanity. As James Baldwin said, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” In Take This Hammer — a 1963 documentary featuring Baldwin that aims to explore “the real situation of Negroes in San Francisco,” as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present — Baldwin eloquently expresses my desire to let go of any baggage that neither serves nor belongs to me:

I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. If I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? […] Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

I don’t waste energy and I’m not taking on someone else’s issues, fears, or projections. Yet, we hold experiences and emotions in our body; I feel these encounters and tensions in my shoulders and chest for months after, as though I’m reliving them, reinforcing my social and psychological boundaries of where I feel I do or don’t belong or what I can and can’t do. Travel and Capoeira help break these boxes and boundaries. From roda to roda and place to place I traverse worlds through space and time, utilizing movements, communities, traditions, and values from a familiar past and shared heritage.

Bahia in Brazil.

“Leap of Faith” Dance class at Fundação Cultura da Bahia, located near Terreiro de Jesus in the historic Pelourinho center of Salvador, Bahia.

When my students stumble, fall or get hurt while learning new skills, I tell them: Do whatever you need to do to feel better. Take a break. Drink water. Cry. Feel what you need to feel. But as soon as you can I need you to try and do at least one more. It’s important that we don’t let that last one interfere with your ability to progress.  Do not let anyone or anything stop you from attaining your goals or being in your purpose. 

An elder once said to me, “Home is a state of consciousness.” I went home to the motherland. In doing so, I went home to myself. I keep my traveler’s mind as I move about the world, and the city of my birth. I am always an ambassador for myself and my community. I am always learning and sharing. I am always a guest. And, I am always home — because my home is me.


Jarrel’s previous contribution to the Open Space magazine, “When We Move,” a collaboration with Javier Briones, was commissioned for the publication’s fourth issue, The View From Here.

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