Seattle's Underground Railroad / by Jahan Sharif

Seattle at dusk

Seattle at dusk

Seattle is what I imagine happens when you put white intellectuals, composting, unlimited money, and nature into the same place. If you fall into one of those buckets, life can be pretty good here. If you don’t, things can be a bit trickier-- at least for me it was.

I don’t live in Seattle, but I still felt “the Seattle Freeze.” The Seattle Freeze is how outsiders and transplants describe the experience of making friends in this city. It’s the feeling you get when you know that no matter how close you might feel to this person, you’re probably never getting a dinner or party invitation. It’s Drake singing “No New Friends,” but to the extreme.

I described this experience to a new friend, Annette, last week over steamed soup dumplings and fried pork buns in Seattle’s International District— formerly known as Chinatown. As I ranted about my confusion, she nodded with a knowing, but empathic, smile. Finally, I relented; and in a soothing tone, she said something like, “You’re not crazy. What you’re feeling is actually happening.”

Anette is an archivist working to collect, preserve, and share Seattle’s rich Asian history by documenting and contextualizing oral histories. It’s a fascinating and hugely important project. She’s been doing this work since returning to Seattle about 11 years ago, after being away for about as long to study and teach.

Anette is a third-generation Seattleite, but apparently that didn’t make it any easier for her to find a Seattle tribe when she moved back.

“I had basically the same experience when I moved back.” She told me, “Except it’s worse, because… you know… I grew up here! I’m supposed to already know what to do!”

Through her archival work, Anette connected with one of the historical societies, and there she found her vibrant community. In hearing how Anette found her people, I remembered an experience from that morning:

Before lunch, I visited Efrem at his coffeeshop, Boon Boona, outside of Seattle. (You might remember that I interviewed Efrem for my eighth post: Coffee, Culture, and Nipsey Hussle — Building Community Through Entrepreneurship.) I arrived around 10am and the place was packed; and, apparently it had been so from the moment they opened. As I scanned the room, I noticed something remarkable: There were hardly any white people!

It seemed like practically every POC was represented, with maybe 2 white people in the whole place. This is the first time I’d ever seen something like this in Seattle— and frankly, I couldn’t stop staring!

I figured I’d try to explore my observation with the barista. I made small talk with her by asking about her shirt? It said “Honor Indigenous Lands. Kill the Black Snake.” She said that she bought it from the owners of another POC owned coffee shop that was raising funds for an educational program that would be about the history of land that they were on. She also recommended I check them out, because “they’re great peeps and we’ve got to support them.”

I relayed the story to Efrem and he co-signed it, and then added, “Did you notice that we serve beer now? It’s from a local brewery nearby— they’re part of the fam too, you know?” I certainly did know.

As I was telling Anette this story, a comparison to the Underground Railroad popped into my head. Finding community as a non-white person was kind of like traveling the Underground Railroad ONLY (<— did you see that? ONLY.) in the sense that you needed to know where the safe houses were in order to get to where you were going. For enslaved people it was to the North, for POC Seattleites it was finding other POC Seattleites!

Boon Boona, like the community of preservationists, is a metaphorical safe house. They attract people who value these connections, and they know where the other metaphorical safe houses are. Through this informal network-- this community-- history is preserved, culture is transferred, values are reinforced, and knowledge is spread. Anette agreed. She added that it’s easy to forget that people existed in this city, and on this land, for a long time before Microsoft and Amazon showed up. And they didn’t last this long by accident. However, if we-- the current beneficiaries of their efforts-- don’t do the work to record and teach it, this history will be suppressed, or even erased. And that is the true danger.

Seattle is as strange a place as any other. But this trip, I was able to see it with a new lens, and, thanks to Anette, her fellow preservationists, Efrem, and Boon Boona I received a new lesson: Don’t let whatever’s happening now, erase what came before. Every thing, every place, and every person has a backstory. And to understand why they’re here and where they’re trying to go, you have to also understand where they came from.

Or as Baldwin (who borrowed from Shakespeare said), “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Seattle, WA, USA
July 2019