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Growing Up Black in Seattle

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The four generations.  Pictured from left to right: Charlotte Watson Sherman, Aisha Sherman Commeh, Dorothy R. Glass, Maya L.K. Commeh, and me at Grandma Dorothy’s Seattle home. June 5, 2015.

Last week I had the colossal pleasure of returning to my hometown of Seattle, Washington for my grandmother’s 80th birthday.  The trip was absolutely amazing—I reunited with most of family, who, for the most part, are doing incredible things, checked on one of my besties, and was reminded of all of the things I love about where I grew up. Maybe it was the fact that my life just took an unprecedented turn for the better and I could celebrate it with loved ones, or maybe it was because living in rural Ohio for four years has made me yearn for urban swagger, but the trip was absolutely everything to me.

Whenever I meet new people, I’m quick to tell them that I loved growing up in Seattle.  And just so we’re clear, I let them know that I grew up in the Seattle that had a slight chip on its shoulder– the one that relentlessly sold off superstar athletes like A-Rod, Randy Johnson, and Ichiro.  The one that could only claim Jimmy Hendrix, Starbucks, grunge music, and Kenny G.  Yes, chile, Kenny freakin’ G.  Going to the Super Bowl was unheard of during my childhood.  We had a better chance of getting rocked by another earthquake.

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The view of Mt. Rainier from Seward Park.

Seattle was good to me.  I spent 18 years living in one the Seattle’s most racially diverse enclaves (what up, Rainier Beach!) where my best friends were Black (like me), Eritrean, Vietnamese , Ethiopian, Laotian, and Chinese. I was surrounded—literally–by breathtaking mountain ranges and immense bodies of water. As such, I learned how to swim, snow shoe, ski, and canoe.  I attended one of the largest and notorious public high schools, which means that I was just as accustomed to walkouts in protest of war as I was to award-winning orchestras and jazz ensembles.  And don’t get me started about Sockeye salmon (true story: to this day, salmon of any sort is my go-to comfort food whenever I feel homesick).  I never regretted growing up in Seattle, even if the city got dissed occasionally.

But people have a new and improved view of my city.  The Seahawks put us on the map a couple of times.  Then that movie about the guy with cancer came out.  Then Macklemore did his thing.  People finally recognize how dope Seattle really is.

Except for one thing: I still get asked if Seattle really has any Black people. And people of all races ask me this in all seriousness.  So in case you were wondering, yes, we exist!  We represent 8% of the city’s finest.  No, that’s not a lot, but let’s be honest, it’s probably more than you thought there were.  More importantly, there are 5 essential Black Seattleite experiences that unite us.  They are as follows:

  1. Your Blackness is regularly up for debate.  Maybe it’s coming from a relative who  did or didn’t grow up in Seattle.  Or maybe it’s by a fellow Black classmate who thinks they grew up in a more authentically Black part of the city.  There will even be times when non-Black folks try to check you.   But you kind of understand because, hey, you live in one of the Whitest cities in the US.
  2. Your Black restaurants are severely limited.  King Fish CafeCatfish Corner? Ms. Helen’s?  Casualita’s Caribbean Cafe and Rum Bar? The Diasporan cuisine type doesn’t matter.  All Black restaurants in Seattle are cursed to eventually close for reasons we’ll never fully understand.  If there is currently one open, frequent it as much as you can, because God only knows when they’ll close.
  3. There’s a max of 3 degrees of separation between you and another Black person. So you know that joke about how all Black people are related, or at least know each other?  Turns out this one is basically true in Seattle.  If you don’t know said Black person living or working in the city of Seattle (all bets are off for Bellevue, Everett, Kirkland, etc.), ask your friends or family, and voila!  Ya’ll know exactly who they are.
  4. Your hair will get wet and there’s no point in fighting it. The rain is real.  You have always known this.  You and your hair have made your peace with it, and you have either given up or know exactly which styles are going to be suitable for the ever-present precipitation. And please believe, you know just how to fit your raincoat’s hood all the way around your edges.
  5. You kinda like alternative stuff. Skateboarding? Kale? Recyling?  Artists that no one has ever heard of? If it’s something that your grandparents would tease you about on the grounds that it’s not Black enough, that’s you all day.  And you love it.  Because how many Black folks’ families migrated all the way to the Pacific Northwest and proudly call it home?
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2 thoughts on “Growing Up Black in Seattle

  1. Zahida,

    It was so good to see you and your family, especially you lovely mother at Seward Park a couple of weeks ago! I am loving your writing…and its Northwest vibe! Please keep writing!

  2. I loved this story and want to hear more!! I am so intrigued about people of color in the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in NYC and I want to check out the Seattle scene so badly!

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