From the AnthologyBlack Women Coping in Cleveland
by Danielle Dixon
I know what I must do. I put on my superwoman cape, don my sword and shield and do what I call postponing the breakdown. I can’t allow the tears pressuring my eyes to fall. Black women’s tears do not invoke the wrath of God. We do not get to be damsels in distress. Dudley Do Right is not coming to save us. No one is coming. We must save ourselves.
I first learned the art of “fixing my face” as a kid. There is an urgency to growing up black. Black parents did not have the luxury of allowing us to have a learning curve. We learned quickly under the threat of spankings or stern reprimands. I was not allowed the privilege of sulking about my hurt feelings or hinder parts. I could not go outside looking angry or with tears in my eyes. Black parents knew the world would not care about our feelings. In fact, black woman’s tears are blood in the water for sharks, attracting more sharks. There is no place for us to be vulnerable. So, I breathe short breaths, my chest heaves as many times as necessary to get the eye water under control.
Meghan Markle described the time that she made her scheduled appearance at a Gala at Royal Albert Hall, despite the fact that she no longer wanted to be alive. Despite the fact that the monarchy declined to help her get help, one of the reasons was it would look bad for the monarchy. White comfort has always been a higher priority than actual black safety. But Meghan Markle shows up shimmering, shining, smiling for the cameras all the while holding her husband’s hand so tight their knuckles were white. They get to their private viewing area. The lights go down. Megan weeps silently, so as not to draw attention, being ever aware that intermission is coming and making sure she “fixed her face” before the lights came up. She postponed her breakdown.
I learned from the best—how to postpone my breakdown. Swallow my unmet needs with a gulp of liquor or maybe mix it in with my food like I did with those beans I didn’t want to eat as a kid. Unmet needs don’t dissolve well with orange juice like the medicine my mother deceptively gave to me when I was sick. She wore her superwoman cape so much I don’t even know when she had time to wash it. Like many black women she had many responsibilities. While she helped me get through college she was also taking care of aging parents. She did this while working two jobs, dealing with misogyny and racisms micro-aggressions. She could disarm enemies with humor so poignant even they had to laugh.
If this life was like the movie The Godfather, then my mother would be like a wartime consigliere, a general. She could navigate setbacks with water like fluidity. She created and executed survival plans with few resources and even made survival feel like a game, or even like the struggle was possibly a blessing making us all stronger, attempting to steal back some nugget of power.
The only problem with being a wartime consigliere is what happens during peacetime? What does a warrior do when there is no war? When Superwoman gets calibrated to the struggle she might miss the adrenaline rush of the fight and fall into emotional lows that she has no skills to navigate. She still feels unprotected and she cannot be vulnerable anywhere. There is currently a movement to classify racism as a public health crisis. Makes me wonder if there will ever be a cure or treatment plan for post traumatic slave syndrome.
Postponing the breakdown is a survival skill. While this happening is not exclusively black or female it is a skill that has been passed down in black women generationally since slavery. Imagine a slave mother whose child was sold out from under her or her man whipped well beyond the point of him passing out, yet she could not fight back, protest, scream, cry out or fall apart. She was expected to get back to work or else she could be next.
Postponing the breakdown requires a steel-bladed resolve to sever our anger, our pain, our resentment, our sadness and disappointment from the body in order to survive the day. At times it requires us to act counter intuitively. We saw in real time Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend and passenger on that fateful day he was gunned down by police postponed her breakdown to survive the moment. We saw Philando bleeding out in the front seat of the car, dying before her eyes. We saw a panicked police officer with his gun still trained on the occupants of the car. We saw Diamond have to unpack her steel blade of resolve and sever her emotions in that moment because she had a four-year-old daughter in the back seat of that car and they needed to survive the moment.
To add insult to injury, Diamond Reynolds was handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car with her four-year-old daughter, where she begins to break down. Her four-year-old daughter says to her mother “Mom, please stop cussing and screaming. I don’t want you to get shooted.” And just like that the cycle continued. The four-year-old girl learned under gunfire how to postpone her breakdown. She pulled out her steel blade of resolve, severed her emotions until she was numb and then brought her mother back from her breakdown. They were not out of danger yet and still needed to survive the day.
I think about the gut-wrenching emotional conversations that black parents all over the country have with their children about racism and how to survive it. There is nothing more important to a parent than protecting their children. Black parents want their children to be able to stay innocent for as long as possible, like any other parent. The decision to tell kids about racism creates a precarious dilemma. Is the knowledge protection or does it force the children to worry about adult problems? Explaining away a boogeyman under the bed would be so much easier.
According to The Institute of Women’s Policy Research in 2020 black women only make 61 cents for every dollar made by white men, despite the fact that more black women are getting bachelor’s degrees. In Cleveland, where black folks make up 48% of the city’s population we largely still live within the redlines established one-hundred years ago. With the wealth gap still being so wide we do not have access to the same resources our white counterparts do to repair the decaying infrastructure in our communities. Despite the numbers being bleak, we use black girl magic to make the best of that 61 cents. It does not look like we’ll be able to completely retire the super cape any time soon, but my hope is that we can regroup and use the education and our ingenuity to stage a better fight.
I know what to do. The answers come to me from my ancestors, through the middle passage, through slavery, through Jim Crow, through the blood in my veins. I’ve been trained for this. After all, the black handbook says that if you’re black you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. My grandmother would add the amendment if you’re black and female you have to work three times as hard. I open the black handbook to the pep talk speech that black kids from the Martin Luther King era and beyond got. It’s the one where they tell you that some people will treat you bad based on the color of your skin but you must ignore them. You can do whatever you put your mind to if you persevere. Denzel Washington said “...Fall down seven times get up eight.” It has always been understood that our lives will not be easy but what we cannot do is give up.
Danielle N. Dixon is a published author, poet, and artist. By day she is an underwriter for Progressive Insurance. She has a BA in Visual Art from Kent State University and is an alumna of The Cleveland School of the Arts. She was a Baldwin House writer in residence in 2020. Her work has been published in Neighborhood Voices, Cleveland Stories Volume 2, Inclusion Magazine and The Luna Negra. Danielle was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio where she currently resides.