Political campaigns are built on hooks much the same way pop songs are, so it’s not surprising that a single sound bite was a defining moment in the New Orleans mayoral election: Ray Nagin’s “chocolate city” remark.
“It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” Nagin said on January 16 to a small crowd of mixed black and white chocolate when he took a turn at preaching on the steps of the federal courthouse at the Martin Luther King Day parade. Normally a popular event, the parade was thinly attended this year, marching through sparsely populated neighborhoods in the paralyzed city. “And I don’t care what people are saying in Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be.”
I personally was appalled, though not because of the “chocolate city” reference. I thought it perfectly appropriate to reassure black New Orleanians that they had the right of return, at a time when some whites were openly promoting measures to insure a “smaller”–barely disguised code for less black–New Orleans. No, I was appalled because I’ve had enough of politicians who claim to know the mind of God. In the same speech Nagin spoke of hurricanes as God’s wrath, that God was mad at America and mad at the black community. OK, I thought, he’s come unglued. Again.
But, music lover that I am, I understood immediately that in evoking a chocolate city, the mayor was citing George Clinton, the should-be American poet laureate. Likewise, much of Nagin’s audience that day would have understood his apposite reference to the proto-rap title cut of Parliament’s 1975 album Chocolate City. George Clinton didn’t originate the phrase “chocolate city”–it was a nickname for Washington, DC–but he made it national currency, expanding the term to include all black-majority cities in the years after white flight.
There’s a lot of chocolate cities around/ We got Newark, we got Gary/ Someone told me we got L.A./ And we’re workin’ on Atlanta/ But you’re the capital, C.C.
When Clinton’s “Chocolate City” came out, the mayor of New Orleans was Mitch Landrieu’s father, Moon, the last white mayor of New Orleans to date. With much of the chocolate electorate gone, the 2006 election was the chance to get vanilla people back in the mayor’s office and the City Council, and everyone–Nagin, Landrieu, the press, the voters–knew it.
We didn’t get our forty acres and a mule/ But we did get you, C.C./ …You don’t need the bullet when you got the ballot.
As the Republicans like to say, it was all Clinton’s fault. Nagin’s “Chocolate City” remark exploded into media immortality. It hung around his neck like an albatross and was not allowed to be forgotten. Two and a half weeks after MLK Day, when I walked down Bourbon Street on my first post-flood trip back to New Orleans, every shop had a variety of “Chocolate City” T-shirts, including “Willy Nagin and the Chocolate Factory,” with Nagin’s face in place of Johnny Depp’s. But there was no one to buy them. The Blackwater mercenaries guarding the New Orleans Public Library at a reported taxpayers’ cost of $950 per day per man weren’t snapping them up. The Central American construction workers brought in by subcontractors of subcontractors had other plans for their minimum-wage-or-less income. There was no one else there.