On She Goes

Embracing My Shadows

Lessons from Living in Madrid as a Black American

Nneka M. Okona
Nneka M. Okona
October 17, 2017
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This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. 

Amid another shifting season, and at the end of one chapter and tunneling forward into a new one, I’ve been more reflective than usual. I’ve been chiefly thinking about the time I spent in Spain, and I am mostly in awe of how that huge decision—to uproot my life and move 5,000 miles away from my native Atlanta, Georgia—was made four years ago.

In September 2013, I obtained a one-way ticket and boarded a plane to Madrid. I’d vowed to leave writing behind in exchange for a new career of teaching English. My plan was to stay for a good chunk of time as I catapulted myself into this change—at least for a few years.

It made me peer deeper within and embrace my shadows, the parts of me I’d failed to love, to accept, to nurture.

I was nervous, anxious, and excited as I sat in front of my gate and shuffled my passport from one hand to the other. I tweeted through the nervousness and got mostly warm wishes from friends and family who were excited for me. I was headed on a new adventure, and my stomach felt like I’d swallowed hot lava. I questioned every decision I’d made up until that point, even whether taking this leap was a good idea to begin with. The funny part is, it wasn’t until after my Spanish adventure had ended and I had been back living in the States a year that I was sure I’d made the right choice.

Change—and taking huge leaps—can be rife with uncertainty.

Living in Madrid for nine months turned my sense of awareness on its head. It made me peer deeper within and embrace my shadows, the parts of me I’d failed to love, to accept, to nurture. Here are four lessons I learned during my time in Madrid about being Black in Spain.


The very famous Metropolis building in Madrid.
photo by Nneka Okona

Change can be beautiful. Change, however, is also new, and newness comes with a touch of discomfort and pain.

As cliché as it is, my soundtrack to my first three months in Madrid was Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, indeed because nothing was the same. Living abroad meant adjustments to a new normal that were composed of a series of little nuances: learning how to shop for groceries in a new country, the different way toilets are flushed, the concept of siesta, and taking the Metro and bus. Piled together, the slight differences made everything overwhelming. Other people who had lived abroad warned me the first three months would be the hardest, and I wouldn’t start to feel settled until month six. They were right. I experienced mental and emotional anguish for a long time as I shifted to what would become my life in Spain. 

How the rest of the world sees me is not how I should see myself.

Madrid was a vastly different place from where I grew up and embraced as my norm as a child. Being from a predominantly Black suburb east of Atlanta meant I never really felt different. I was always surrounded by people who looked, talked, and thought exactly as I did. Madrid was the opposite. I was the different one. I was the tall one. I was the Black one. I was the one with unruly, nappy hair. And I was, because of all these things combined, the person who was a target for stares that lingered far too long and who experienced waiters disappearing once I sat down to dine in a restaurant, employees following me as I shopped in stores, and jobs and other opportunities being lost for unspecified reasons. I was this person to them, but, as I slowly learned, I was not that person to myself. I should not and could not be that person. I had to take everything I had and pour it into myself as a steady reminder of how deeply I mattered and how I was fine with who I am.

From my time spent with Vaughantown at Barco de Avlia. 
photo by Nneka Okona

Systems of support are vital wherever you are in the world.

When the weariness of racism and prejudice started to get to me four months after my move, being lonely and without deep bonds made it harder to shoulder. It deepened the sense of isolation and misunderstanding I faced on an everyday basis. It made each racially motivated incident more hopeless and ultimately solidified my decision to leave Madrid and return to the US. But it also taught me how invaluable friendships are. As much as I like to think of myself as an independent island floating out in the world—able to take on dreams, goals, and wishes without a team cheering me on—it’s a fallacy. We all need people. And I needed people. I needed people to drink gin and tonics with, to practice shoddy Madrileño Spanish with, and to stay out until 2 a.m. dancing in the disco with. Thankfully, I found a few people to share my time in Madrid with, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to help me stay.

And I needed people. I needed people to drink gin and tonics with, to practice shoddy Madrileño Spanish with, and to stay out until 2 a.m. dancing in the disco with.

There are choices you can make. Choose fearlessly.

Dealing with unrelenting racism lent me choices. I could do what so many had done before in the name of racial persecution: assimilate as a means of survival. Compartmentalize. Stuff who I knew myself to be—a Black woman, an African woman, a woman from the Southeast—further down into myself. Show it only to those who mattered. But I chose, perhaps radically, to be and assert all of what I am. To be unafraid despite the cost. To be true. I chose to be fully me. Ultimately, this meant my Spanish adventure had to come to an end. The weariness became too heavy to bear. It was a hard decision to leave. I’d committed to staying for longer than the nine months I did, but I knew it was time to move on. Time to be somewhere where I didn’t have to fight to be who I knew myself to be.