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.
With much of the black electorate in exile, public housing shut down and public schools closed, the very concept of enfranchisement–make that citizenship–was at stake. People were voting to keep from being politically as well as physically swept away. Distant voters, who may necessarily have a multi-year timetable for moving back to their ruined homes, had to make sacrifices to be able to get back to New Orleans to vote. And they had to do it twice: once for the primary, and again for the runoff. As more than one commentator has pointed out, it amounted to an exorbitant poll tax. Many couldn’t manage it, but even so, black participation in the election surpassed all the projections that prematurely wrote Nagin’s obituary. Not only was Nagin elected, but so was a majority-black City Council.
Nagin was arguably a miserable manager. Before the flood he seemed, like many New Orleanians, to be in denial about what might happen. Even after the debacle of the Hurricane Ivan evacuation in 2004, he still relied not on having transportation ready for the poor but on a “vertical evacuation” strategy that used the Superdome as a shelter of “last resort”–which is, of course, a poor person’s only resort. He pulled the trigger late on evacuating for Katrina. He did not visit the convention center when it had been converted into what became popularly memorialized as a modern-day slave ship. His hand-picked police chief failed spectacularly. And lots more.
So why would anyone vote to re-elect him? Interpreting a vote is a notoriously hazardous endeavor, but it might reasonably have seemed to a black voter that as a matter of political principle, to change over to a white mayor–any white mayor–under conditions of massive disenfranchisement would be unacceptable. Not a few black New Orleanians rolled their eyes at Nagin’s remark. But they also noted the fury it aroused, and its frequent repetition by the less chocolate elements of the community. Nagin had long had the reputation as the tool of the white business elite, but now he was branded, as political strategists say, as Mr. C.C.–by his own mouth, certainly, but even more by the echo chamber. He got only 6 percent of the white vote in the primary.
But then, with so many Landrieus already in Louisiana government, the Landrieu brand sounded like an echo, too. Landrieu seems to have run a campaign based on letting Nagin make all the gaffes, while counting on money, name recognition and demographics to work their magic. He was standing on the verge of getting it on. He was endorsed by Louisiana’s best-known black preacher, Bishop Paul Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church. But he failed to tear the roof off the sucker, and voters treated him like Sir Noze d’Voidofunk in “Motor Booty Affair.”
Some 80 percent of the white vote was for Landrieu, but blacks were about 55 percent of the approximately 113,500 voters, and some 80 percent of their vote was for Nagin. It certainly seemed like a race about race, in the hometown of Plessy v. Ferguson. But “race” is a biologically bogus concept, requiring the invention and policing of an artificial color line. There was more than skin-color identity politics at work. There was a culture gap. Unlike Landrieu, Nagin was bilingual: He could talk white or black. Landrieu stuck to his script, which doesn’t work so well in the home of jazz, where you have to improvise with whoever shows up.
There is, of course, an irony in all this. In the runoff, Nagin was endorsed by the highest-placing Republican primary finisher, Rob Couhig. New Orleans Republicans don’t detest Nagin nearly as much as they detest the Landrieu family. Part of Nagin’s crucial white 20 percent seems to have come from them, making for a very unusual coalition.
If Landrieu had only realized it, George Clinton could have provided advice on how to deal with this. In the 1970s, Clinton created his own version of the two-party system, signing more or less the same band to two different labels under different names. He put out Chocolate City on Casablanca under the name of Parliament, but he also recorded for Westbound under the name of Funkadelic, which had a raunchier sound and stretched out more–a little more rock, a little less R&B. Landrieu could have countered Nagin by taking his cue from Funkadelic, as expressed the same year Parliament put out Chocolate City:
Shit! Goddamn!/ Get off your ass and jam!
Me, if I were giving out Pulitzers, I’d award George Clinton a double prize in music and poetry. His teenage group, the Parliaments, cut their first record in a recording booth in Newark in 1956 (the year Ray Nagin was born), making 2006 a fiftieth anniversary. In that half-century, he’s been one of the most imitated American musicians and one of our most quotable lyricists. He laid essential groundwork for the musical substance of hip-hop. Mr. P-Funk is still doing hard roadwork, taking around a large traveling music theater troupe that played a fine show at Twiropa in New Orleans in April 2005. He’s a natural-born political consultant, though his wisdom is perhaps inaccessible to the humor-challenged. (Bulletin! Woody Guthrie is not the only model for “political” music.) I can’t think of a better inspirational message for the 2008 presidential campaign than “One Nation Under a Groove.”
Hurricane season has officially begun, though it doesn’t usually get rough till August. The Army Corps of Engineers, at whose doorstep the disaster of 2005 can be laid, is building the levees back, but only to a Category Three level of protection based on, say the experts, an inadequate “standard project hurricane” model. I hope that Nagin found time in his busy schedule to pick up the latest P-Funk album, released on September 6, 2005, when much of New Orleans was still underwater, with its prescient title: