Wa Na Wari has a vision for the Central District’s black future

A gray house with the phrase “Black Legacies Matter” carved into a side column sits along 24th Avenue in the Central District. A staircase leads to the front door, each of seven steps etched with lines from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Mother to Son”. A wooden rocking chair rests on the porch, occasionally joining the white banner reading “Wa Na Wari” that hangs between garlands of bulbous lights.

It means ‘Our home’ in Kalabari, an Ijo language of Nigeria. The fifth-generation home, once owned by Frank and Goldyne Wokoma, is now a “vessel for black joy,” showcasing black history and culture through art exhibits, film screenings and performance. Led by a cohort of four, Wa Na Wari aims to provide a space where black people can feel a sense of belonging – it’s a place where they can simultaneously feel seen and escape the hyper-visibility that comes with existence in white-dominated spaces. “Black communities are like oases of spaces where we can be full human beings,” says Inye Wokoma, grandson of Frank and Goldyne and co-director of the organization. “These are very special places.”

The Central District has long been the hub of black art in Seattle. The neighborhood, famous for a thriving 20th-century jazz scene and home to artists like Jimmy Hendrix and Alvin “Junior” Raglin, was made up of Jewish Americans, Japanese Americans, and black and African Americans in the 1970s.

Historically delimited area, blacks represented 80% of the population. Elisheba Johnson, one of the center’s four co-directors, recalls walking through the area with her dog by her side, being approached with neighborhood greetings, playful banter and compliments to her pit bull . Never feeling out of place. Always accepted. Fast forward 20 years; the central district is not the same place – blacks make up almost zero percent of the total population. The neighborhood hellos disappeared with the neighbors.

“I complained all my life that Seattle wasn’t black enough when we were 12% of the population. And now we’re six,” Johnson says. And the change wasn’t gradual; it was “Mass displacement” is what Wokoma calls it. Some, Johnson knew, moved to Renton, others to Atlanta. But no one seems to know where the others went – it was kind of “It’s very painful because people keep asking us, ‘Where did they go?’ and I can’t tell you,” Johnson says. For Wokoma and Johnson, it was like one day, fifty percent of their people just evaporated.

Living in a state of constant disorientation, as Johnson puts it, in search of a place to belong, is a common experience for the black population still in the Central District after the exodus. “When these physical spaces disappear, there is a huge emotional and psychic gap in people’s lives.” Wokoma said. Wa Na Wari is their way of trying to make sense of an absurd world, of creating an island of refuge in a sea of ​​change.

Amid white hard hats and orange safety vests, between caution tape and scissor lifts, Takiyah Ward paints a mountain range made up of the Central District’s most towering figures, including Chief Seattle and Judge Charles Johnson.

The artist grew up in the neighborhood, like his mother, and decades ago his grandfather owned a storefront in Midtown. “My family’s history is very much rooted in this particular place,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to cement that.” The mural pays tribute to both his family and the community as a whole. The middle of the piece features neighborhood focal points, such as Mount Zion Church and Garfield High School, while the foreground depicts everything from the Super Bowl to influential local jazz bands. “I just wanted to portray my understanding of the history of this place,” Ward explains.

Ward was one of eight artists selected to work on the Midtown Square project. Its mostly black and white mural spans 120 feet and was completed during the construction of the Vulcan Apartments on Jackson and 23rd. She sees the work as a catalyst for communion and conversation.

This isn’t the first time Ward has been a topic of conversation. In 2020, she was one of the conservative artists in the Black Lives Matter mural on Capitol Hill. The Pioneer Square resident lives a block from the courthouse and remembers hearing the grenades, the screams, the flash bombs that lit up summer evenings. His contribution to the mural, two Js, takes on a three-dimensional twist, creating the illusion of falling into a black chasm. Ward says the design was meant to make viewers understand that the conversation about inequality goes beyond the current moment, that our current moment is tied to historical realities. “It’s not just Black Lives Matter, it’s civil rights, it’s segregation, it’s Jim Crow, it’s slavery.” It is also linked to a vision for the future.

For Wokoma, belonging lies in the feeling of being recognized, in safeguarding a shared understanding of the past that allows a community to imagine and achieve its future. “We believe communities are archives,” adds Johnson. Preserving a connection to the past for young artists like Ward is Wa Na Wari’s raison d’être.

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