Rust: A Black Woman’s Story of Growing Up in Northeast Ohio
Black women I know from home have stories that often go unnoticed and untold
I only know weathered women. Women like my great-grandmother who stared at the lines on her palm to predict a change in the air. Like my aunt, an exercise instructor who ran away to Chicago only to return home with a stroke. And my grandmother, who left one morning in her burgundy Pontiac. She died three months later, after the car accident. My mom withered down to 90 pounds while taking care of my grandmother when she was in a coma. I lost my memory.
For the women I know, shouldering the burden of unemployment, drug addiction, and family dysfunction comes at a high price. Some were abused. Many died. Some loved thick, but that kind of love was never returned. Others left for a short time and came back, maybe because of shame or guilt or maybe because Northeast Ohio was all they really knew.
In places like Northeast Ohio, where it seems only working-class White Trump voters exist, Black women are living in racially segregated neighborhoods, and their babies are dying at alarming rates, all while leading the fight against corrupt law enforcement agencies. Though some studies give us a sense of the social and environmental stressors Black women confront in the Rust Belt, more often than not, statistics aren’t disaggregated by gender and race, making it even more pressing that Black women’s stories from the Midwest are told.
In this region of the country, home is possessive. And the choice to leave, when presented, is rarely an easy one. You either leave Northeast Ohio for better opportunities, or you stay to build a life. This choice is especially salient for Black families. Despite social conditions that have plagued the lives of poor and low-income Black Americans, there’s still a shared sense of struggle and history that makes this place we call home ours.
In Elyria, Ohio, the small town where I grew up, racial segregation has been a defining characteristic since its inception in 1817 when European settlers occupied Native American territory. According to The Housing Center, the Cleveland-Elyria metropolitan area is the fifth-most racially segregated region in the United States. Poverty statistics for Cuyahoga and Lorain counties rate above pre-recession levels at 33% and 15% respectively. When Black people are lucky enough to own property in this region, home values in Black neighborhoods tend to decrease. But when Black people buy homes in predominantly White neighborhoods, values tend to increase because, as historian Richard Rothstein notes, Black people are willing to pay more for homes in White neighborhoods due to housing supply restrictions in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Despite social conditions that have plagued the lives of poor and low-income Black Americans, there’s still a shared sense of struggle and history that make this place we call home ours.
In 2012, the New York Times profiled Elyria with an interactive piece called “This Land.” It features a story about Ike Maxwell, a former Elyria High School football star whose life went awry after his 19-year-old brother was shot and killed by a White Elyria police officer. Over the several years that followed, Ike suffered multiple physical injuries, mental illness, and drug abuse. He was collateral damage in a racially divided town.
My mom grew up with Ike. She gets angry anytime we talk about his story. Perhaps she felt some responsibility to Ike, like most Black women do to the men and boys we know. Perhaps she was angry because the town she grew up in failed Ike, and outsiders could see why. My mom doesn’t much care for the Times’ profile of Elyria. To her, the Times version of the land isn’t her home.
Stories coming from mainstream press about Black and White life in the Midwest often get distorted. Decades of industrial decline and the war on drugs helped shape these narratives. But drug addiction didn’t start when Donald Trump was elected; neither did White economic anxiety. The economic downturn in Northeast Ohio began decades ago when steel and automotive industries left town. Family members struggled with mental illness and drug addiction long before these were considered national crises, and a scarcity of local resources and unemployment had a lot to do with it. It’s true that Black and White families suffered. Though, in comparison, Black families were less likely than White families to recover from economic decline and high unemployment. When White people managed, Black folks endured.
Over time, Rust Belt neighborhoods like Elyria appeared stuck in a Norman Rockwell painting, except buildings that were once quintessential landmarks of an idyllic, bustling town became dilapidated and abandoned. In this world, there is no burgeoning middle class, and Black people aren’t seen in the foreground of American life. This vignette appears in American politics too. Despite the fact that two of the largest counties in Northeast Ohio, Cuyahoga and Lorain, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, many of them Black voters, Whites who voted for Trump remain the sole face of the Midwest working class in Northeast Ohio.
And perhaps for this reason, as a way to feel unstuck and write my own story, I left Northeast Ohio after high school.
I am a child of the Loving Generation. My experience of class in Northeast Ohio was greatly influenced by my father’s racial privilege and my mother’s blue-collar work ethic. Growing up in a working-class family meant financial stability was temporary. My parents had good jobs that didn’t last. They were pro-union. They were also an interracial couple in a newly desegregated world. They were firsts. My mom was the first Black female lineman for the Elyria Telephone Company in the 1970s, and my dad, a White superintendent at General Motors, advocated for Black workers to organize and receive fair treatment in the workplace. They married in 1979, 18 years after the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia overturned laws outlawing interracial marriage in the U.S. Though their marriage was legal, our family still had to navigate overt racial discrimination in Northeast Ohio.
Though they didn’t know it at the time, my parents engaged in a tactic that early civil rights groups used to bring attention to racial discrimination in housing. My dad was the family’s tester. He scouted rental properties around town because my parents had a better chance of renting a place if the landlord knew a White man was signing the lease, not a Black mother. My experience, although not the norm, underscores the psychological harm families endure when Black women aren’t valued.
Often in our imaginings of life in the Heartland, we forget that Black women have, for decades, sustained social institutions as the economy around them decayed. Their stories go unnoticed, perhaps because it’s easier to ignore the gradual process of systematic brokenness than to confront it.
But these stories must be told in order to make right what Anne Trubek calls “narrative inequality.” Because when statistics about economic anxiety, voter suppression, and health epidemics in the Midwest dominate the national news, we’ll remember that Black women have been embattled with these conditions for generations. We’ll avoid using stories as a means of speculating about a panacea for the economic anxieties of White voters. We’ll recognize that Black life in the Midwest has always existed despite the single story of Whiteness.
We’ll remember that none of this is new.
Often in our imaginings of life in the Heartland, we forget that Black women have, for decades, sustained social institutions as the economy around them decayed.
Then we can ask better questions, like how do we slow down the process of weathering women? Although decades of Black women sustaining social institutions to the detriment of their health can’t be reversed, it is possible to reduce further harm by addressing the systemic disregard of Black life that causes Black women to suffer in the first place. It requires paying attention to the health and well-being of Black women and mothers and organizing at the local level to end racial and gender discrimination in housing, law enforcement, schools, and in the workforce. While there appear to be signs of hope for legislation supporting maternal health care for Black women that would help Black women in my hometown, a seismic shift in policy priorities to address issues affecting Black women is still necessary.
And perhaps telling Black women’s stories can set this shift in motion. Because when our stories are told, something happens: Weathering slows down. And the burden of maintaining a normal life amid broken communities will no longer fall on the shoulders of the women we know.
Tara L. Conley is an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. She was born and raised in Northeast Ohio.