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Reimagine Seattle: Jessixa Bagley

The challenges of the past two years have changed the way we live, the way we work, and the way we show up for each other. They have also given us a rare chance to collectively reimagine our future. Through the Reimagine Seattle Storytelling Project we invite community members to reflect on their current experiences in Seattle, how they have been impacted by recent events, and their hopes for the future of our city.

Walks with My Son

words and illustration by Jessixa Bagley

I never knew there were six-year-old gear heads, but that is my son Baxter. Wandering the familiar streets of our neighborhood in pursuit of getting outside during the pandemic is to him an excuse to look at any and all vehicles. This is a sheer joy for him and sheer exhaustion for myself and my husband. “Look a Prius! It’s a Toyota Sienna Minivan! Look a Ford Fiesta! Look! It’s a tiny Honda Fit.” He’s not discriminating when it comes to vehicles, aside from the fact that he prefers electric and hybrid vehicles but apparently, he does NOT like the Nissan Leaf (“The lights are WEIRD”). Go figure.

I don’t know anything about cars and have no real interest in them, but going on a walk with my son has always been a joy for me. An opportunity for us to see the world together and connect over the small things- which as we all know, are usually the most important things in life. When we go for our walks, even though he has tunnel vision, I am the one that is looking in my side mirrors, so to speak. There is something extra important about these walks: the fact that I am black, and my son presents as white. My husband is white, so Baxter is very light skinned. When we go out on a walk together, I am consumed with something other than just looking for cars. I am looking out for our safety, both physically and socially.

watercolor painting of an adult and child, holding hands, walking down a tree-lined sidewalk. a red car is visible in the distance.

As a black person in a predominantly white city of Seattle and a very predominately white neighborhood of Queen Anne. I am used to being aware of my race when I walk down the street. Stares that linger on me past the point of comfort. Unfriendly glances and people stiffening uncomfortably if I get near. The occasional outright racial slur as I pass. When I had my son though, I was so in love with this creature, I figured that these experiences would melt away whenever I was with him because everyone else must be able to see our love, right? What I found was not exactly the case. I found myself being even more aware of how I moved through the world when I was with my son, because now this could affect someone else. And all I wanted to do was to keep him from seeing me experience these pains. For us to just blend. But that is not realistic.

After the murder of George Floyd, my lovely neighborhood (largely monied and white) had filled their houses and yards with “Black Lives Matter” signs. I cannot tell you how much this filled me with comfort and emotion to have signs letting me know that my life matters, that my mother’s life matters, that my sister’s life matter, and that my son’s life matters. These signs let me know I am seen and being looked at with kindness and welcoming, not with fear or disgust. When I’m made to feel like a visitor so often in the place I call my home, to see a literal sign that says “you belong here” gives a feeling of safety and belonging I can’t fully express.

So, one day, after the latest “racial awakening” in America had begun, my son and I set out on one of our regular walks. He was spotting and naming cars and I was in my usual mode of looking around and making sure that people know some facts from a glance and earshot: I am a responsible citizen and good mother to this light skinned little boy. I put on “hands visible” sort of demeanor and I make my voice a little louder so that people can hear me when I instruct my son not to get too close to the cars and not to touch someone else’s property. I do this knowing full well this has little to do with him and everything to do with me. All of my actions are designed to give comfort to other people, all the while imposing a subtle level of discomfort and sadness on myself for having to go through these now automatic motions. This is the reality that I have to live in and I’m not exaggerating why I do this. Even in my own neighborhood, that mostly shows solidarity with me and my family, I still have to make sure that people know I am not a criminal threat, even in the presence of my small child.

We continued down streets we have walked hundreds of times and my son spotted a very unique vehicle. Part truck, part car. He exploded with joy. “It’s a Subaru!!!” (I cannot make up how excited he was about seeing this unlikely type of Subaru.) As we got near, I quickly started my usual statements, “Let’s look not touch. Let’s stand back, this isn’t ours so don’t get too close.” All loud enough so if anyone nearby heard their fears would be calmed. But the reverse happened. While we started to leave after seeing this exciting vehicle from a safe distance, I heard the door to the house the car was in front of abruptly open. My eyes met the scowl of an older white man. He was giving me “the look.” The look every black person knows who’s been in this situation. It’s the “Get away-you don’t belong here” look. He piercingly watched me as I ushered my son away and we continued down the street. (And don’t try to tell me it could have been a look unrelated to my race. Like I said, if you are black, you know exactly why you get those looks. Try giving me the benefit of the doubt instead of the man intentionally making me feel unwelcome.) To my simultaneous delight and sadness, Baxter didn’t notice a thing. But then I wondered if that was okay? Is it truly better for him not to know what is going on around him? It fell onto me to decide: Do I shield my son from the discrimination his white skin won’t heap upon him but his mother will always bear? Or do I actively show it to him and try to explain it? I opted for the latter. That is my responsibility- to help him see what is really going on in the world, not prevent him from seeing it.

The remainder of our walk consisted of him pointing out more cars and me having to explain to him that I was given a non-verbal que to get away from someone’s car because I was black. Answering questions over and over again of why that man gave me a crusty stare, why people think black people might steal from them, why that is a racist stereotype, what a stereotype is…  I felt a heaviness and deep sadness the rest of our walk. The fact that in the neighborhood I’ve lived in for almost nine years, a single look can make me feel as if my life in fact doesn’t matter.

While it was a good and hopefully productive talk, it wasn’t the one I wanted to have with him. As little interest I have in cars, I would have much rather talked about the various styles of hatchbacks and sedans and why coups only have two doors. Knowing the exhaustion of naming models of cars instead of the exhaustion of watching my every move and worrying about how other people feel when we are nearby. I often wonder what it would feel like to be able to do that. To freely move through the world not having to worry if just my presence makes people concerned for their property and safety. As long as we need to have signs in our yard defending my right to exist, I guess I won’t ever know. But I have hope. Until then, I’ll keep going on walks with Baxter. Trying to notice just the cars, instead of the people that own them.

Jessixa Bagley, smiling, wearing red glasses
Jessixa Bagley is an acclaimed picture book author/illustrator. She also has a background in comics, fine art, and printmaking. Originally from Oregon, Jessixa’s work is often inspired by her life and growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Her first picture book, Boats for Papa, won the 2016 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award. Jessixa is also the recipient of a 2018 Ezra Jack Keats Honor Award for Writing for her picture book Laundry Day. She lives in Seattle with her husband and artistic collaborator, Aaron Bagley, and their son.

Submissions for the Reimagine Seattle Storytelling Project were commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained in each submission do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas, of the City of Seattle.