by Marsha Lynn Bragg
The report by City Lab indicating that Cleveland, Northeast Ohio, my home for most of my life is the “worst large city in America for Black women” was a gut-puncher. I had to ask myself: Why would anyone spend time in a city that a report suggests is hazardous to your mental, emotional, spiritual and oftentimes physical health? That has caused much self-reflection. Why am I here. Why am I still here?
I’ve pondered that question all too often as I drive or walk around the city and its inner-ring suburbs. Cleveland has well-respected colleges, institutions, medical centers, public libraries, arts centers, restaurants, and social services agencies. But that’s the problem. They may be in the city and dotted all around it but how many are actively engaging with the city and it's residents, especially Black women? How many of these places have Black women in positions of power and influence? How many places have welcoming environments with people who greet us with helpful smiles rather than looks of disdain and discomfort? How many places have resources geared specifically to our interests and needs?
How could a city with a hospital ranked 2nd in the nation also have one of the highest Black infant mortality rates?How could a city with a premier research institution, exceptional community colleges also be among the lowest in educational outcomes for women? While I have a decent job and live in a modest house, I also live in a redlined community, where one can see the differences in the businesses allowed here but not in neighborhoods just a few miles away. Houses that are modern and larger have more green space, while other homes are close enough that you can hear adult chatter or the whirling of clothes in the dryer. The difference in housing stock might depend on where the home is identified on the city map or how close it is to the city limits.
Somedays I feel overwhelmed by what I see and don’t see, by the snail’s pace of change promised by our civic leaders, and by the emotionless, hopeless expressions on the faces of other Black women I encounter. Clevelanders often joke that we are a sullen group because the sun rarely shines here; it’s overtaken by gray, overcast skies. Even in the summer. Thank you, Lake Erie.
But it’s much deeper than that. The despair I see is the result of intentional neglect and systemic disenfranchisement that efforts to correct it are spotty and random at best. Every time I see PR campaigns that says Cleveland is on the rise or a new development is on the horizon, I ask where? when? how long?
Although this pandemic has forced us to interact with the world while wearing a mask, look and you too will see the hurt, the exhaustion, the I’m fed-up expression in our eyes. The masks I speak of are not the cloth that we’re required to wear to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Rather, it represents the masks many of us put on each day to cope with the challenges laid before us as we venture out into a city that doesn’t fully acknowledge or support us. I put on a mask as spoken so honestly in the familiar poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
I wear the mask as a means of self-care because I know that in some places I venture, I am not wanted, I won’t find what I need nor will I get the answers that will benefit me.
So how do I cope—and thrive—in this city that a report says is hostile to Black women?
I have learned how to choose who I want to engage with; uplift and nurture others where and however I can; speak out and speak loudly when others can’t; show up and be present when it matters; and write when I need to make sense of all that’s happening around me.
I have met amazing Black women, who despite these dire predictors and statistics, have created space for themselves and others to be their full authentic selves, who willingly share their talents, life experiences, and love. Because they know we must first love ourselves so that we are not overtaken by the mask.
I’ve also discovered places where I can go that are nonjudgmental, that invite me in just as I am, that shower me with warmth, hugs, and fresh calm breezes. I’ve discovered these places on the frequent walks I take. I strip off the mask, walk, and pray. Most times I walk alone to gain peace and renew my spirit; other times I walk with my sister-friends in GirlTrek, a national health movement that encourages Black women to be change makers in their lives and communities by doing what many of our ancestors did: walk. Walk for freedom, healing, health, purpose, spiritual awakening, friendship, and so much more. I walk in neighborhoods, in parks, along the Lake Erie Shoreway, in semi-wooded areas .... I walk.
While I made the choice years ago to live in Northeast Ohio, I did so because of the many Black women I’ve met who exhibit a boundless hope and an unwavering commitment to a future that’s better than its past.
Marsha Lynn Bragg is a wife and mother who has lived in Northeast Ohio for most of her life. A former journalist and web writer, she is currently an editor and a contributing writer for a national women’s engineering magazine. She has ghostwritten and edited three inspirational books. When not journaling, Marsha enjoys vegan cooking, bible study, reading books by Morrison, Danticat, and Woodson, walking throughout the various Metroparks that dot the city, and catching up on episodes of Queen Sugar. This is her first published essay.