A Guest Writers’ Week post by Kelly Macias
I turned twenty on my knees. Well, not quite literally, but close enough.
I turned twenty in 1998. And I spent New Year’s Eve 1997 at my grandmother’s house with my cousin. At 11:45pm, my grandmother (a lifelong Catholic) announced to us that she had a tradition to pray from 11:59pm until 12:01am. The prayer signified the ending of the year that passed and asked for health and prosperity in the new year to come. As the first-born grandchild I had a special bond with my grandmother and was always terribly afraid of disappointing her. So I agreed to indulge her tradition. And at 11:59, I found myself on my knees praying, even though I’d probably only ever prayed a handful of times before.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
Pajama-covered knees on the tiled floor of my grandparents’ basement, gripping my palms tightly and squeezing my eyes shut. I was excited that in just a few months I was going to no longer be a teenager. I was even more thrilled that in just a few weeks I would be leaving my hometown to spend the semester of my junior year in college studying in Spain–a very big deal for a girl born and raised in Baltimore by a single mother. There was a lot to be grateful for and so much to look forward to. I was supremely hopeful. And so I prayed with fierce determination that all of my dreams would come true. I prayed that what I felt was a very ordinary life would be magically transformed and made extraordinary. I prayed that I would find happiness, fun, adulthood and maybe even romance in Europe.
And that’s how I would characterize the decade of my twenties–spending a large part of those years in an attempt to hold on to a desperate, outwardly seeking, optimistic and innocent kind of hope.
For the record, I did find some happiness and fun in Europe. Weekend trips to Paris, Lisbon, London and spring break in Dublin were dreams come true for a young woman who had barely been on a plane before. And while I had my share of hook-ups with (mostly European) men, I didn’t really find romance, but I did find excitement. But looking back, as I recall that time, what I reflect most on is that I most certainly found adulthood.
Having been in predominately white schools for the majority of my school career, I knew what it was like to be something other than white. In fact, most of my friends were white women, though I did have a sprinkle full of friends of color from various parts of my life. My friendships at that time were a microcosm of how I understood the world. If I were nice to someone, they’d be nice to me; and anyone and everyone had the potential to get along–regardless of differences. While I was very aware of race and racism, my understanding of it was limited to individual acts of meanness instead of a complex system of structures resulting in the marginalization and oppression of people of color.
Though my time in Europe was not the first time I’d experienced racism, it was the first time it manifested itself in a way that caused me physical harm. I was touched by well-meaning strangers wanting to feel my hair and skin, I was grabbed on the street by men who assumed I was a prostitute, and I was even kicked by a skinhead one day as I was taking the metro to dinner with a friend.
It was a lot to take.
There I was, living the adventure of a lifetime, having some amazing fairy tale moments in beautiful European cities, coupled with very real, dangerous experiences that reminded me that I always walk the Earth as a woman in a Black body. It was difficult to grasp the idea that no matter how much I loved and accepted everyone, not everyone loved and accepted me. It was made worse by well-meaning white female friends who, as much as they might have tried, did not have a clue about what I was experiencing.
Those experiences, however, did not dampen my hope and optimism. In fact, I consider my study abroad as one of the most transformative events in my life and remain grateful for what it taught me about the world and myself. I spent much of my twenties trying to get back to Spain and Europe. I continued to hold out a delirious, almost childlike hopefulness that I would find happiness, fun and adventure and that the world would accept and love me for who I am and not for what I look like.
As I near the end of my thirties, I realize that the outwardly seeking, optimistic hope I once possessed has been replaced with a more bluesy kind of hope. It’s the kind of hope that I often see in other Black women and saw in the older Black women in my family; the kind of hope that a woman gets after embracing all of her lived experience. It is a hope that is optimistic but measured, grounded in reality and infinitely more practical. It is a hope that is resilient in times of tragedy and one that also finds great joy and jubilation in moments of triumph. Although I now have many years of travel under my belt, I still have fantasies of traveling the world and finding new adventures. Those dreams are now coupled with the knowledge that there will always be perceptions of me as a Black woman anywhere I go that I can’t control; misunderstanding, hatred and indifference directed toward me that I can’t explain.
And yet… hope urges me to push on. To continue to forge a life that is fearless and intentional and brazen. And, no matter the challenges, that’s just what I’m doing.
After all, hope is hope. No matter what form it takes.
Kelly Macías is a writer, trainer and consultant whose work explores the intersections of race and identity, communication and conflict. She is the founder of the blog, Conflict Undone (www.conflictundone.com), where she writes about the experiences of undoing life’s many conflicts in order to live a more authentic, transformative life. When Kelly is not working or writing, she is interested in supporting Black women’s storytelling and testimonies as a way of healing. She can often be found working out her own life’s conflicts on her yoga mat.