I sometimes find myself fascinated with certain women. How they move in the world, completely aware and yet still at ease. I hesitate to call them “strong women” because we have such an immediate concept of what that must mean. Ripley firing a huge gun with a child in her arms, yes, is an image of a Strong Woman™ but it’s not the only one and not the type I write almost 2000 words for. I’m drawn to strength because of femininity, not in spite of it. Strength in tandem with vulnerability. Strength through unapologetic honesty. It’s that duality in that I see in Eris Eady, who I’m sure was not expecting all of this when she asked me to take some photos of her getting a new tattoo last Saturday. (Sorry homie!).
Eris picked me up at 7:30 that morning. Almost immediately she asks if I’ve seen the documentary WattStax, as she’s listening to a live performance from the show. I had never heard of the documentary, the event or even the song she’s playing so she immediately pulls it up on YouTube for me. “You are going to get your entire black life” she tells me. She’s right of course. It’s a beautifully shot. Every performance is bookended with interviews from celebrities and non-famous people alike and of shots of black people just living in 1972, a rarity for modern audiences to see. She turned up the volume on a gospel song (Peace Be Still) to drown out her own singing she claimed but really I think it was because it was the kind of song that needs to be played loud. The harmonies just ripple through time and space.
Our first stop is to a barbershop in Garfield Hts that she’s been going to for years. Eris warned me that the place maybe packed, and it is, but not in an overwhelming way. Upon entering the small shop, I’m hit with the fact that everyone there knows each other. Almost as soon as she sat down, Eris cracked a joke about the condition of last place the barbershop used to be at. Suffice to say, this new location is a marked improvement.
As our wait goes on, the conversation shifted as we try to find something to watch on Hulu. Eris asks me if I have seen Kiki, the documentary on the ballroom scene in New York. Our barber, a jovial and somewhat crass man, asked if Eris said “Kitty” with a knowing wink. Eris rolled her eyes, corrected him and explained what the ballroom scene is. I can feel our barber bristle at the very thought and I begin to wonder how to navigate this moment. I’m a guest but I try to be a good ally. Eris is about to pay for service. They seem to be friends. How do I counter these old stereotypes our barber is laughing about that he considers harmless, as people with privilege are wont to do?
Ultimately it didn’t matter. I learned later from Eris that “Every time I’m here, I’m ready to labor”. She clicked play on a documentary that purposefully features feminine men and trans women to a room full of (presumably) cishet men who didn’t seem to dismantle their preconceived notions often. With every joke and flippant statement made - including a rather predictable joke about Dennis Rodman - Eris’ firm corrective approach was the kind of “tough love” people claim but usually fail to properly use. She didn’t let people get away with snide remarks or derogatory terms. She explained what it means to be trans and corrected pronouns. Eris is the Program Director at the LGBT Cleveland Community Center but the way our barber pushed back as he learned showed that this is old hat for them. They’ve known each other for 12 years. She navigated this education session in just the right way for it to land, respecting who she was talking to. Never talking down to anyone but instead talking to them, respecting everyone for where they were in the cultural awareness while still asking them to do better. I think the “You were born in Cleveland but are a Steelers fan” metaphor hit him in just the right way.
All the while, we both got our hair cut by some rather deft hands. (When I tell you I am too fresh right now tho *insert a very excited “Aaaaayyeee" right here*). It was somewhere in the middle of this conversation that I decided I needed to write this.
We got back in the car, turned WattStax back on and headed to a threader (threadist? A person who does eyebrow threading ok? Y’all feel me). It’s another hole in the wall kind of shop and we are in and out in maybe 10 minutes. There’s an entire essay in the cultural differences between a black barbershop and a Southeast Asian (likely Indian) beauty shop, but that’s for another day. Just know that the difference was felt. Still though, Eris got a laugh out of the beautician and broke the tension.
At Chipotle, we ran into a white woman who compliments Eris’ “Hangry Black Woman” shirt. After she explained she designed the shirts herself, she jokingly tells the woman that black women aren’t angry, just in need of a snack. And then immediately warns the woman not to use that joke herself. I had to hold back a full belly laugh at the idea until we left. We swapped fake conversations about what would happen had the woman tried it: “Yes Susan, I do want a cookie BUT WHAT WE NOT GONNA DO…!”, which then led to a conversation about our favorite black proverbs: “what we not going to do” “woo unto your ass” “come here to me". It was a code switching adventure in three quick parts: from saleswoman to cultural educator to black auntie. It also was just your average Saturday at lunch time.
We made it to the convention a bit early in order to give us time for all the crowds downtown that day. Like most things in life- it was pretty white and male there, exemplified by the collection of folks here with rough looking attempts at dreadlocks, the woman who thought I looked like a painting of Tupac and the stranger who asked us if we “were the ones selling the $20 pussy" because we happened to be too close to a clever sign. It was almost as if we had spent the morning building up our armor for this onslaught. Of course not everyone was an asshat, but that’s the stress of never knowing where an attack could come from. We exchanged bored, annoyed looks at each infraction. Just another Saturday after lunch time.
Eris had scheduled her tattoo session with an artist named Cake, the only black female artist there as far as I can tell. When you breakdown one door as a black woman, you usually automatically take down two or three in the process. There are few, if any, female tattoo artists at all there. There are a few women there running culturally related booths - graphic designers, tattoo suppliers and one taxidermist. The others worked the front of the artists booths trying to draw people in to schedule a time to get a tattoo. Most of them had pants on.
So Cake stood out, her naturally loc’ed hair in two large loose pigtails, the tips dyed a fiery pink, in a t-shirt with a list of euphemisms for “vagina” (the reason for the previously mentioned "$20 Pussy" sign). She moved like any seasoned artist, arranging her tools just so in a precise manner that meant nothing to my untrained eye. Soon enough Eris was in the chair, getting the original piece first sketched and then inked onto her arm, a process that took around six hours.
There's not much for a camerawoman to do but wait and shoot sporadically. I made note of what I could, chief among them the fact that I was in a room full of people with a different relationship to pain than me. At one point before Eris got started, we both noticed from across the room a woman in a bungee apparatus. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realized the woman was hanging from the piercings in her back. You’ll have to forgive me for not getting a photo of it in focus but your girl could only handle so much. Eris though was all about it and later recounted all the gross body horror she is into. I want to make some note about how this parallels something else about her but for real for real, I'd rather not think about this woman hanging in the hair by some apparently strongass piercings for any longer than I have to.
Another thing I noticed was how many onlookers we got. That’s the point of course, we were at a convention. But so many had a moment of at least mild surprise on their face that I couldn’t quite source. There's a kind of intimacy having to be in one spot for a long time can create between the people who share it. There are former coworkers from my days at United Dairy Farmers who told me their entire life stories during those slow winter shifts. This might be why these newly-formed fans threw me off. Cake and Eris would be in the middle of some slightly personal conversation only to be interrupted by someone asking about the design or the pain or whathaveyou. Harmless enough questions but they irked me for some reason.
Honestly though, it could have just been because I was hangry.
The piece itself is simply gorgeous. Of course it invited onlookers. Soft and powerful, it’s a profile of a black woman looking outward. Her lips are full, her hair embodies nature, she’s surrounded by peace signs and spirals and leaves. At the top, that classic pick with the black fist on the handle. A perfect design Eris didn’t even have to create. Cake brought it all to the table without much prompting. By the time Cake was done, a small crowd of people who knew Eris had formed, all eager to see the result. The payoff was well worth it and Eris milly rocked as she showed it off.
As if planned all along, our day ended at a friend’s house, where she is safe, unbothered and doesn’t have to explain a thing to anyone. Her friends are black, femme and are at least educated on queerness, the best place to be to recharge after such a long day. I left her there as she curled up on the couch and drifted off to sleep.
There was a point about midway through writing this where I wondered why I was really doing this profile in the first place. It’s what writers do with anything they create of course - question if it needs to be made in the first place. Clearly I’ve sided on “yes, it does” if for no other reason than a simple public display of admiration. The entire day was a dance between occupied worlds - black and queer, woman and racially marginalized, saleswoman and educator, black, queer, woman and the tattooed. Eris is the “and” in those statements, the living breathing bridge to remind us that nothing is mutually exclusive, despite what the world around us may demand. I got to watch that in action in the span of one simple Saturday of errand running and artistry and I thank her for it.
Editor’s note* - this is not the first profile exploring “Strong Women™” by the author. You can read the first on here: http://www.alturus.co/winning-work-strategy/. It is very likely that this will be an ongoing series but as there is nothing planned for the near future, please don’t hold your breath for the next one.
*I’m my own editor, so blame me for the typos you catch.
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