Joy is Power

In Health and Healing by Kermeisha Williams

Black Twitter closed off 2020 by declaring December 21st as the Negro Solstice! There couldn’t have been a better ending to such a tumultuous year! I’m sure you saw the jokes and the memes, and perhaps have shared, retweeted, or hashtagged. And if you haven’t, here you go

While it was all fun and games on Twitter, I wondered what life would look like if we actually did unlock superpowers. Has this thought also crossed your mind, or is it just me? What if you could run as fast as Usain Bolt, fight like Mike Tyson, or sing like Beyonce? What would the world look like if you were connected to the full range of your individual capability—whatever that means for your unique body? What if unlocking superpowers starts with mastering your current state of health?

This may seem common and unworthy of superpower status, but that’s the whole point. The human body is capable of such incredible feats that we often take for granted.

What does it mean to be healthy?

Across history and culture, what it means to be fast, or strong, would have changed many times over. Maybe our ancestors would have jogged by Usain Bolt as he sprints to the finish line. What it means to be healthy, is as much a social idea as it is a physical attribute. How you push your body, what you expect from it, and what you ask of it, are all products of culture. 

While the bodies of the modern person may not have changed much, how we move them, use them, and what we expect from them, has. Comparatively speaking, much of the dangers faced in historical times would be unfathomable in the modern-day context. When danger feels real and imminent, we are forced to respond to it. Now that we do not face certain dangers anymore, have we also dropped the standard for health and what we believe our bodies can do? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as, “A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” It is widely accepted that our human lives at the very least, consist of these three aspects. 

Recently, ideas around mental health have emerged in the public discourse. There are many research studies that show connections between physical, mental and social well-being and how they undoubtedly go hand in hand. There is no full achievement of health in one area without the others. And by boosting one, you boost the others. 

Do you have a word for mental health in your language? 

Growing up, I didn’t have a word for mental health. Seeking therapy was not a common practice. I also didn’t have the language to talk about mental health as I do now. But I loved to dance. Migrating from the Caribbean on my own at the age of 17, needless to say, was rough. I struggled with what I now recognize as social anxiety and depression. But what kept me centred and motivated most days was my love and passion for dance.

It wasn’t until after embarking on my journey of self-discovery that I realized that my culture may not have had the current language, but we did have the tools to boost mental health all along. In my case, this tool was dance. My connection with dance started from my Christian upbringing, using dance as a form of worship in the church. This tradition of connecting dance or movement with faith and spirituality can be traced through many generations and cultures. As an adolescent still forming my understanding of the world, I often found comfort in connecting to my faith through dance. I felt seen and understood in all the things I could not express with words. See sometimes, we do what is right for us without knowing. Sometimes we heal ourselves, without trying. Sometimes, we participate in a ritual that has been passed down through culture, not knowing it is a healing act. 

Exercise for Mental Health,  an article from The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, details how physical health and exercise can have a positive impact on mental health “by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood,” as well as alleviating low self-esteem and social withdrawal. This is exactly what dance did for me. 

A legacy of Healing. 

Is it possible that our ancestors had deep, healing, mental health rituals all along? But instead of calling it mental health care they just called it, well—life?  When I think about how we as a people have survived the aftermath of horrific injustices, I also think about the culture and creativity that they birthed along the way. I think of old folk tales and the art of oral storytelling. I think of the Harlem Renaissance and its influence on art. I think of the birth of hip-hop and its influence on the evolution of music. Was the creation of hip-hop a mental health check-in? Were these activities mental health exercises? These cultures of creativity are also cultures of healing.

To be able to appreciate your superpowers, you have to expand your idea of what optimal health is. Superpowers do not always mean running like Bolt, or singing like Beyonce. These, too, are social ideas that are grounded in narrow and ableist notions of good health. The creativity that shows up time and time again in our communities is its own kind of healing ritual. Our capacity to create culture, create community, and engender joy, is crucial to supporting our health. Our ability to laugh, sing, dance, and feel—despite the odds of life—is its own kind of superpower. 

And while this does not take precedence over orthodox forms of mental health, like therapy, there is innate power in thriving through culture and community. The thing about the Negro solstice is that it was never about unlocking new superpowers. It was about cultivating the powers we always had. Through community and creativity, we create joy. And joy is the best type of healing.