This essay/profile has as much to do with a location as it does the woman I’m writing about. As a rising female community leader, Mrs. Davis is still working within the limits of Toledo, Ohio, an interesting city that is worth closer inspection from an outsider’s perspective.
Toledo, Ohio is never too far outside of the Forbes list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities
.” In fact, last year it was number eight, but its citizens can take solace in knowing that things will never get Gary or Detroit-miserable. About an hour south of The Motor City, Toledo is a rusted over populace of startling contradictions. Sure, in 2010, it was rated fourth
in the nation for the sex-trafficking of women and children. What with its close proximity to Canada and access to railways and highways, Toledo must now contend with modern day slavery. But on a lighter note, its zoo has been named best in the US for 2014
. It’s a damn fine zoo, but visitors can’t help but pause to wonder: Really? Here?
The “Great Lakesy” culture of Toledo is thick with Polish sausage audacity, Gadsden flags, and diabetes. And still, hidden beneath the unrefinement, there is a international known art museum that houses priceless works by Van Gogh. And one cannot forget its ballet company that has existed for least 75 years.
Toledo, along with the rest of Ohio, is largely ignored until it’s needed for the outcome of a presidential election. Every four years, the city is pulled into the national spotlight, like poor Baby Jessica being pulled out of a well. All eyes are on the struggling metropolis while candidates make a show of rolling their shirts sleeves to the elbow and making stump speeches about how they promise to keep a better eye on feeble Toledo.
But Toledo isn’t feeble. In fact, it’s a hard-headed city born of ruckus. The Toledo War of 1835 was fought over this scrap of supposedly miserable land. Apparently Michigan and Ohio had a poor understanding of land boundaries and the strip of “Black Swamp” was very desirable because of its fertile soil and burgeoning canal/railway connections. The “war” lasted for a year and was almost entirely bloodless, with the exception of a Monroe Country sheriff who was stabbed in the leg with a pen knife. He lived, making The Toledo War a shoving match on a playground between two petulant territories. The squabble was eventually settled by then recess attendant, President Andrew Jackson.
Since it was decided by Jackson, that the land belonged to Ohio, Toledo has continued to be scrappy. Even during the Great Depression, Toledo managed to remain afloat with public works projects that kept people employed and building things. During the World War II and many decades after, Toledo was home to Jeep production, spark plugs, and Libbey Glass. In short, Toledo has always had something to keep it going. That fight still exists in the people who have not yet fled the “Glass City.”
In 2010, I was trying to figure out where I fit in the Northwest Ohio landscape. My husband and I moved to Sylvania, the suburb that was fought over in the Toledo War, and I saw very few blacks. In truth, Sylvania is one the whitest parts of Toledo, most likely due to the white flight from the urban parts of the city. I felt stuck and alienated while working on this blog, back when it revolved around black hair care. It was a lonesome time when it felt like there were no black women around to talk hair or to share where the local beauty supply stores were. But in true Toledo fashion, the unexpected contradiction happened: The Northwest Ohio Natural Hair Expo was coming to town. Actually, it was being created in town by the intrepid Megan Yasu Davis.
I met Megan a week or so before participating at the Expo and saw Toledo grassroots organization at work. Davis, a formally trained hair stylist, practicing natural hair care since the nineties. She, herself, wears her hair in stylish dread locks that can be coiffed in every imaginable style. In 2007, just as black women began abandoning chemical straighteners, Megan created The Kitchen Salon
with the purpose of “educating individuals on becoming their own DIY expert so that they may embrace their texture and wear their natural with confidence.”
The “kitchen salon” is nothing new to black culture, as it was born of self-sustenance and community. If one couldn’t afford trips to the salon, they took to their own kitchen to heat up a hot comb. A little black girl could count on her mother or a trusted beautician on their block to have a stove and skill with a magic wand (that sometimes stung). Now that we live in a digital age of democratic DIY, The Kitchen Salon takes it’s place in the myriad of YouTube video tutorials and blogs, as a way for black women to regain power over their image and identity.
Four years after the first natural hair expo, I contacted Megan, curious to know what had changed since we first met. As it turns out, quite a bit has changed for her. While she’s changed the name of the expo to the Ohio Natural Hair: Health & Beauty Expo,
the participation and attendance has steadily grown through advertisement, local vendors and word of mouth. Davis has opened this space for the underrepresented part of Toledo that is still vivacious and recreating itself. The expo, which now caters to black families from the tri-state area, highlights small businesses that come supplied with flyers, giveaway products and free tutorials. In one convention center, black owned businesses are exposed to hours of foot traffic that they might not otherwise receive.
The Health & Beauty part of the Expo is very important to Megan these days, making her the Toledo Annie Turnbo Malone
. Acting as a chemist in her own kitchen, she’s also created her own line of skin and hair care products
. It started out of necessity because one of her children suffered from eczema and store bought skin treatments weren’t helping. She discovered she had to get in the kitchen and create the solution herself. With natural ingredients like Shea butter and coconut oil, she started a line of products that just about anyone can use.
I asked her the usual softball question: How do you do it all? I half expected to hear a softball answer because even as a child I’ve known that black women have always balanced motherhood, homemaking and working. It can be a precarious juggling act, but somehow it gets done. Megan let me know:
Balancing family with being a Mommypreneur isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Because the events I host or attend are mostly family-friendly, I luck out most of the time. There are moments when I definitely need time to myself to research, learn, and plan. But if I don’t get that time, I just keep going and doing the best that I can. With my product line, I have taught my children some of the basics so they can help to make the product we use at home. In regard to the Expo, it takes a lot of planning, but having a template in place, since we have done it before, helps a lot. In all things that I do, my husband is my biggest supporter. He has encouraged me to start this business and he has helped me to manage many aspects of it.
Megan works to help women in her community and I wanted her opinion on what black women needed more of. Her response was: self confidence!
Because of history, slavery, media and social expectations, women are burdened by performing against all odds. They are keeping up appearances for the sake of being accepted by others with little focus on self acceptance. Black Women use natural hair and beauty websites, meetup groups and events to be inspired, motivated, and celebrated. The gathering of people builds bonds between women that help to boost their confidence and self esteem.
When I asked her about how her business works within the settings of Toledo, she admitted that she could have gone to another city to set up her expo, somewhere like Columbus. But she recognized that there was a need for a black presence and identity for Toledo. There are festivals devoted to other ethnic groups that draw large numbers of supporters, Megan is helping to fill the void for the black community.
Being in Toledo makes my work a constant process of development and growth. We don’t have a large community of culturally marketed businesses (Black Owned Businesses) as in other cities like Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati. In Toledo, you will not find a lot of businesses like Black Bookstores or record stores, but we do have a lot of churches, restaurants and salons.
If Megan Davis is anything like the city she works in, she too will have staying power. It’s not often that we hear about the local black women who work to build up a community that everyone calls depressed or miserable. People tend to forget that that kind of grassroots work still exist, remixing and re-branding a city into something new. Megan’s work to educate other women on their health and beauty is a form of activism in itself. It’s a kind of impassioned organic fight that Toledo has been known for.