by Rev. Dr. Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D.
~poorest city in the nation
~worst city for African American women
~population loss for eight straight decades
~two-thirds of the adult population reads as a third grade level
~the infant mortality rate for black families is twice the national average
This is Cleveland. How...did...this...happen? Cleveland is my hometown, the city of my birth. How...did...this...happen? I am a boomerang so I missed twenty years of Cleveland’s devolution. I returned to a city a diminished portion of itself.
Yet, all seems so very “normal” even in the midst of urban blight and less than mediocrity operating in so many spaces and on so many levels. Why are alarms not sounding at every turn? Are we not in a state of emergency? We are indeed merely coping in Cleveland.
Cleveland is such a city of contrast. Noted for its world-class health care, but our infant mortality rate is immoral and atrocious. Possessing world-class stadiums, theatres, and arts and cultural institutions, but it is the poorest and one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
For some of us, including me, coping requires creating. We write. We initiate. We produce. We find community. We find our tribe of collaborators to build and build strong. We find ways to thrive even when surrounded by loss, rejection, diminishment, and a stealth, but well-oiled machine hellbent on the oppression of Black-Indigenous-People of Color (BIPOC). And at what cost? All of the pitiful statistics enumerated above. Each stat simultaneously belies and represents human cost and casualty. Systemic oppression is an expensive, nonsensical enterprise grounded in incivility and intentional deprivation.
According to Citigroup, racism has cost the U.S. economy $16 Trillion. Variety reported that racial inequality costs Hollywood $10 Billion annually. Cleveland’s toll is staggering. We see it. We feel it. We live it.
Oppression is enacted and upheld by the depraved. Living in such an environment with death and destruction, a looming force hanging over our heads even during sunny days is daunting.
Even so, Cleveland’s James Mercer Langston Hughes gave us a Northstar in his poem “Mother to Son”:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
This is why we cope. Millions of Americans of African descent have persevered under far more demeaning and much more harrowing circumstances. Our elders and Ancestors beckon us to continue on. This is why those of us who are wise do not tarry with the negative, but glean from and kling to the positive. For me, it is my nature. Life poses challenges. For some people more than others. Regardless of one's state, it is imperative to strive.
Cleveland was not always poor. Cleveland was not always last. Some of us remember better days. Most of us are a part of the legacy of the Midwestern stream of the Great Migration. Our parents and grandparents sought and felt the warmth of other suns here in the North (as noted in the great work of New York Times Bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson). Good jobs in steel mills and automobile factories propelled some of us to private and Catholic school educations even while living in redlined communities. Some of us, even without the memories of a beautiful, vibrant past can envision an outstanding future.
The question is, how do we—not just individually, but collectively—rise like the Phoenix from the ashes?
The Reverend Dr. Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., is the Executive Producer of the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (GLAAWC pronounced “glossy”). In 2020, GLAAWC’s virtual conference reached over 5600 people in twenty states and four international countries. Her commentary has appeared in The Christian Century, Cleveland Scene, Blavity.com, ForHarriet.com, and other outlets. She is the author of Little Lumpy’s Book of Blessings, which serves as the subject of a project in development for animated children’s TV. A member of DEMASKUS Theater Collective, Leah is also directing and producing two documentaries, Black Buckeyes: A Tale of Two Cities, and Leo’s Legacy. With degrees from Ashland Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Howard University School of Law, and Bowling Green State University, Leah brings her whole being to every task she undertakes. She focuses on justice, equity, and eliminating knowledge deficits even in her art. Visit: http://threebutterfliesllc.com and https://www.littlelumpy.com