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Books

'Chocolate Cities' Draws New Maps of Black American Life

A classic Parliament track inspires a new look at how black Americans moved, made connections, and created a nation-within-a-nation.

Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life
Marcus Anthony Hunter, Zandria F. Robinson

University of California Press

Jan 2018

Other

For all its bold pronouncements, Parliament's "Chocolate City" is a rather minimalist piece of music. The title track of their 1975 album, a precursor to their later funk glories, "Chocolate City" doesn't feature a live drummer, just a spare click track from a drum machine. The space is filled by Bernie Worrell's piano riffs and synth fills, Bootsy Collins' percolating bass, saxes weaving in and out of polyphony, and a group chorus consisting entirely of "gainin' on ya!" Above it all beams George Clinton, impresario of this proto-Mothership, as he proudly surveys the state of urban America.

The specific object of Clinton's affection was Washington, DC, the nation's capitol, which had been a majority-black city for about 20 years by then (and would remain so until the early 2010s). Clinton re-christened DC as CC, or Chocolate City, and noted others in that category like Newark, New Jersey, Gary, Indiana, and potentially Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City. For Clinton, such concentrations of black masses were cause for celebration, and an opportunity to imagine what could happen as a result. "Blood to blood / players to ladies / The last percentage count was eighty," Clinton proclaimed, "You don't need the bullet when you got the ballot." As if the point needed any additional underscoring, the album cover featured the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and US Capitol dome coated in… wait for it… chocolate.

"Chocolate City" lacks the sci-fi and comic book trappings of Clinton's later work, but is of a piece with it when it comes to Afrofuturist imaginings of a brighter day. The difference here is that those imaginings are rooted in realities on the ground, not projections down the line. Places with a critical (or larger) mass of black people became places where black people could draw sustenance, develop a shared culture, and achieve a degree of agency and self-determination over the terms of their existence. By making connections between cities and linking individual experiences to a larger societal pattern, black America essentially became a nation-within-a-nation, joined at the cites where sizable numbers of black folk lived and could conceivably, in Clinton's vision, make all manner of things possible. (Such percolating optimism would presumably include the song's proposed Cabinet-level positions for Richard Pryor and Aretha Franklin; Clinton would take things one giant step further in 1993 with "Paint the White House Black").

Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, an imaginative approach to both urban sociology and black history inspired by the song, begins to articulate how that nation-building took shape. Socioloigists Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria Robinson embarked upon years of research and travel to trace through its cities the paths of renewal and resistance black America has forged. "Chocolate cries are windows into Black migration, urbanization, rural and suburbs life, and racial inequality," they write. Hunter and Robinson attempt a total remapping of black life into "chocolate maps" charting and positioning black life, achievement as struggle as central to the greater America story. It's a novel concept and provocative idea, even if their book only hints at the intricacies of this particular web.

Before diving into their remapping of the historical black experience, the authors take on a larger piece of remapping. They situate Chocolate Cities in the notion that, in terms of overall patterns of equality and tolerance, the North and West blacks fled to weren't all that more enlightened than the South they fled from. Building on a Malcolm X metaphor, everywhere below Canada is their South, divided into six sections -- Down, Deep, Up, Mid, West and Out South. This construction allows Hunter and Robinson to challenge the conception of the Great Migration as a one-way journey that left the past behind. Most prominently in their chapter on an early '00s racial discrimination case against Santa Clara County, California, Hunter and Robinson assert that no matter where black people went, racism and racist practices were there to greet them.

But that chapter also points to the book's critical weakness: its passion isn't always supported by the strength of its structure. That section, for example, tried to link the court case with '60s black politics in Newark and Newark native Dionne Warwick's hit "Do You Know the Way to San Jose"; their spin of the song as a coded message that life there is good for blacks seems overreaching. Several chapters recast oft-told stories, like the biographies of Franklin, Ida B. Wells and Tupac Shakur, as tales of how black life evolved through city-to-city migration, discovering existing communities and building new ones in each locale as the protagonists relocated. But those tales are indeed oft-told, and the authors' interpretation of them in this context doesn't shed copious amounts of new light on them.

The chapter on Franklin stretches her synthesis of black gospel, pop and Southern-rooted musics into a shaky metaphor bridging urban and rural communities, North and South (she was hardly the first to traverse that musical pathway; for a book inspired by a song, Hunter and Robinson could stand to be a bit sturdier on their music-related allusions). When not courting the hyperbolic, Chocolate Cities makes hay of stating the plainly obvious ("Black people have used the resources at their disposal to change their circumstances," concludes their brief chapter on Big Freedia in New Orleans).

There are all kinds of stories and implications Chocolate Cities doesn't consider in depth, including the amassing of black political power through urban mayors and members of the U.S. House of Representatives (with massive implications for the two-party system of electoral politics, and the roots of the blue city/red state conundrum). Towards the end, the authors hint at what a preponderance of black folk might mean in current political practice with a too-brief look at present-day Atlanta; there's enough in Atlanta's history as a chocolate city to justify its own volume. While the book focuses more on personal migration than cultural migration, the latter is critical to considering what connected these geographically separate nodes, especially given the role of black newspapers and radio in binding the nation-within-a-nation together. The episodic structure of Chocolate Cities establishes that such a nation happened, but doesn't fully explore the cultural and social infrastructures that made this nation possible.

Chocolate Cities may ultimately not be as concise or propulsive as its musical lodestar, but Hunter and Robinson are nonetheless on to something here. This could end up being the first draft of a new telling of the black American story, looking through the obvious-in-retrospect prism of following the people where they went. There is a freshness to their perspective, especially in their willingness to foreground LGBTQ people of color in a historical narrative of black life (not only Big Freedia, but also Marsha P. Johnson, one of the central figures of the Stonewall uprising in 1969). It's at its best when uncovering lesser-known stories, such as how Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a black woman born free in Delaware who nonetheless felt inspired to make her way to Canada, wrote a manifesto encouraging other blacks to join her, and ended up settling in D.C., where her home now bears a historical marker.

The authors' look at the US government's decades-long surveillance and harassment of W.E.B. DuBois, until he left America for Ghana in the late '50s, is a sober reminder that while black migration within the country can be seen as an uplifting story, it was also a direct challenge to systems bent on denying such freedom of movement and choice. It prompts us to consider the very idea of black mobility in a more nuanced and appreciative light.

Most of all, Hunter and Robinson have set out a marker for thinking differently about black people in urban America. "Chocolate cities …function as an interpretative template, providing new glasses for those unable to see or blinded by the lenses of 'ghetto', 'slum', 'hood', and 'concrete jungle'," they write in the preface. Where some see vestibules of squalor and despair, they see crucibles of empowerment. They conclude by referencing another Clinton anthem, "One Nation Under a Groove", to suggest that chocolate cities have allowed black people to navigate their way "out of our constrictions". Even if they got ensnared by a different set of constrictions, being in chocolate cities helped blacks gain the wherewithal to keep it moving.

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