I am often invited to speak to groups of young, African-American women about how to find their purpose in life and pursue their dreams. On each occasion, when I look out at the multiple shades of brown faces and bright eyes, I can’t help but to see myself. Looking at them, I am often reminded of what it was like growing up as an African-American woman-child in Lima, Ohio.
I am an eighties baby, which means I grew up during an era when Michael Jackson was BAD and Bill Cosby dominated Thursday nights, not prime time news. You could get whooped by someone else’s mamma, and staying out past the time the streetlights came on was the most trouble you could get in. This was an era when neighbors were friendly and the village was serious about making sure everybody’s child was alright.
My neighborhood, which was almost exclusively black, was full of role models. Like all neighborhoods, there were examples of what and what not be. In that village, being black wasn’t a burden. In fact, not unlike those lessons taught in other minority cultures, being black was something we were proud of – not in a superiority sense, but in an identifying sense because black is who we were and we were taught to be proud of who we were.
In addition to the cultural norms, my mom and aunts were avid readers, so it was through reading books they had purchased by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan and the like, I was introduced to a world where little black girls like me could grow up to be strong, powerful and influential black women. Coupled with the books, my mom subscribed to Essence magazine, and within its pages there were also positive images of black women, as well as articles, that empowered me to reach high and dream big.
But it is hard to keep your dreams from becoming unrealized illusions when what you encounter in your everyday life doesn’t line up with what you know in your heart is possible. And so, I won’t pretend that over time, I begin to see that race does matter. I will not pretend that as a black child growing up in Lima, I didn’t wonder why there weren’t many blacks working downtown. I will not pretend that I didn’t wonder why I matriculated through 12 years of public school with only one black teacher. I will not pretend that I wasn’t upset that when I worked in retail as a teenager and someone black came in and shoplifted, I was pulled to the office and questioned as to whether I knew the person – not the white girl that was working with me.
As a young adult, I made mistakes — pregnant at 18; three children by the time I was 21, all born out of wedlock. I lived in Section 8 housing, bought groceries with food stamps and ran down to LACCA to get my electric paid when I found myself with more month than money. I started college, quit, and then started again. Over and over, I looked for opportunities to create a different kind of life for myself and my children. But I could not find that life in Lima.
As I got older, I realized that no matter how smart I was or how talented I was, I lived in a city where both race and gender mattered and there were very little opportunities for people that looked like me. And although I really didn’t want to leave home, my desired future dictated that I needed to leave. I begin to pray and honestly felt stuck. As a woman of faith, I prayed about my situation and believed God when he said my season in Lima was up. As such, I took the first opportunity out of Lima that came my way.
Naturally, I was not surprised that Lima made the “list” of one of the worse cities for blacks that some — but in my opinion, not enough of us — both black and white are talking about. I don’t care how you spin or dispute the numbers, the reality is that a significant part of the population feels like they are living in hell on Earth.
That is what I mean when I say we have to deal with people on the level that they perceive things. And so my question to leadership at home and away, including myself, is when are we going to stop debating about the validity of the problem and start coming up with solutions to solve it? Does it really matter if the annual income for black households in Lima, Ohio, is just 36.5 percent or 21.3 percent of the annual household income for whites? We don’t have the time or the luxury to argue about there being an 80 percent chance of rain or an 85 percent chance of rain. We don’t have the time or the luxury to argue about if we are on first or second base. The reality is the rain is coming, and no one is getting home so that our team can score.
I’ve been gone 10 years. And in those 10 years I’ve earned a law degree, a MBA and held leadership roles in the public and private sector. I have been blessed to live a lifestyle where I am able to travel and discover new things that Lima doesn’t offer.
But, don’t get it twisted, on many days you will find me rocking in my “I love Lima” T-shirt, craving a Kewpee and trying to figure out a way to get back home. I guess you can say I’m a little like Dorothy, in that for me there is no place like home.
Unfortunately, when I hear the stories of how bad it is, when I look online at what opportunities exist, and when I visit and I am confronted with how much things have not changed, even I with all of my degrees and experience have to face the fact that until we get serious about diversity, cultural appreciation and deliberate efforts at creating and fostering opportunists for all of Lima’s citizens, Lima will continue to make the “list.” Lima will continue to have difficulties attracting business and talent. Lima will remain Lost In Middle America.
Sharetta Smith is a graduate of Perry High School and Ohio Northern University. She currently is a magistrate in Chattanooga, Tennessee.