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Be Curious & Strong

Dear Badass Black Girl,

As a teenage girl, I was curious about everything—people, events, ideas—and I was eager to try new things, even if I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.

The nuns at my high school in Haiti once organized a spectacular fair—a blur of colors, smells, and sounds. The sky was full of bobbing balloons, which danced around the sunbeams poking through the clouds. Under a flamboyant tree, the hot dog lady covered sausages with mustard, onion, pickles, tomato catsup, and hot pikliz—a Haitian condiment made from cabbage and hot peppers. Students wearing dark blue uniforms and white ribbons spent their pennies and dimes on popcorn, peanuts, homemade ice cream, hamburgers, and Styrofoam cups filled with orange soda. They bought deep-fried foods, tickets to shows and athletic tournaments, and enjoyed rides and prizes.

The PTA had arranged to bring a mare named Madame on school grounds, and I wanted to ride, although I’d never seen a real horse up close before. I gently approached the animal, with her long, graceful neck, solid legs, hooves like buckets, and huge chest. Her skin was black, her tail and mane white, eyes dark and wide, and her coat was bright copper. She had white markings on her face and legs. I watched the girl who sat in the saddle and held the reins. It could be me up there. Madame arched her neck proudly and stepped daintily around mud puddles as if afraid of soiling her feet.

The girl jumped off the horse, and it was my turn. Squeezing the last sip of orange soda from a straw, Bernard, Madame’s trainer, asked me for the equivalent of five dollars to let me ride. He wore a stylish, hard hat—the kind made for riders, tight-fitting pants, boots, and a light vest.

Madame seemed tense. She laid her ears back flat and squinted her eyes. Uncertain about getting on, I took the reins, reached up, and grasped the saddle’s pommel. I wished I had a helmet, along with boots and long pants instead of shorts. My exposed skin would chafe from rubbing, but I wanted to get on the horse. Bernard cupped his hands so he could boost me onto her wide back.

As I mounted Madame, I accidentally kicked her in the flank. Startled, the horse leapt forward, nearly unseating me as she ran blindly into the trees. I tugged desperately at the reins as she settled into a lumbering gallop toward the chapel.

It was a wild ride—branches ripped past my face, nearly sweeping me off the animal’s back—but somehow, I held on to the horse as I tried to guide her. I was not big enough nor strong enough to force Madame to stop.

It was a lonely experience, the animal’s ribs pressed hard against my thighs. My heart pounded faster than the horse’s hooves on the cement. I tried to regulate my breathing, tried to hold this engine underneath me at a steady pace.

Bernard yelled, “Be in control!”

In front of the school chapel, the horse stopped with a snort. Madame reared up and tried to turn around, first to the right and then to the left, but Bernard waited for her, his face melted into a shriveled scowl. The horse resisted and threw her head up, but I hung on, heart in my throat, whispering, “Gentle, gentle.”

Bernard calmed her down. I waited a moment, face flushed with heat, sweat streaking across my face, as the whites of my eyes, I imagined, were still bright with the excitement of the wild ride.

During the ride home from the fair, sitting on the scratchy grey seats of my mother’s car, looking down at my dirt-crusted tennis shoes, I recalled the ride on Madame—how I feared I’d be scraped off on a tree and fall winded and wounded on the ground waiting for someone, anyone, to come and rescue me.

Under the animal’s labored breathing, the thudding hooves, I’d realized that Bernard had assumed I was capable of riding—just like Mother assumed I was strong enough to deal with the mad ride that was my life in Haiti, where there was political turmoil and danger. No one bothered to get me a helmet.

But maybe I was strong and capable.

No. I was strong and capable.

Kenbe, MJ


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