The Real Chocolate City

When either ethnic progress or progress in ethnic relations are stymied, arguing over words becomes a substitute. It’s the upper class bias towards civility over activity as transferred to the media and politics.

Thus it’s not surprising, in the midst of America’s second post-reconstruction era, that Howard Dean gets attacked in the white media for saying that he wants the votes of southern whites who drive around in pickups with Confederate flag stickers even though he got applause when he said the same thing to a heavily black audience in the south. It’s not surprising that Hillary Clinton is excoriated for using the word ‘plantation’ in front of black audience even though Newt Gingrich once said the same thing of the House of Representatives and no one said a mumblin’ word. And it’s not surprising that Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans should get in trouble for aspiring to keep New Orleans – formerly a two-thirds black town – “chocolate” even though he stole the term from DC where it was applied with love and honor for quite a few years.

Yet while Dean was being courageous and Clinton was just pandering, Nagin did something far worse: he used the patois of the struggling on CNN. He’s not the first Louisiana politician to get in trouble that way. When Huey Long became widely famous, he would speak at dinners and tell some his old stories. He became disturbed by how few people laughed until someone explained that, thanks to national radio, everyone had heard them before. He no longer was a local pol moving from bayou to bayou. Nagin also forgot whose microphones were on.

Wolf Blitzer of CNN became so perturbed that he raised the question of whether a regime change in the Big Easy was necessary, albeit not indicating whether he favored invasion or merely aerial assault to bring democracy to New Orleans. But to this white DC native, Nagin’s worst offense was to try to rip off our nickname.

Having lived much of my life in the real Chocolate City, I find myself far more bothered by people who become irate at the impolite subtexts of those who haven’t done as well as they in the American system, and who not only regard the suffering as inevitable but believe it should be endured with silence and gentility.

There is a curious connection between NOLA and DC. They are both cities that early had an unusual number of free blacks. Segregation operated under local ground rules, sometimes at odds with the larger southern standard. There were an atypical number of black Catholics. Class distinctions intermingled with – and sometimes surpassed – ethnic ones both within the black community and its relations with whites. There were an atypical number of whites who grew up with cross cultural experiences and an atypical number who found it part of the pleasure of the place.

Dan Baum, in his remarkable description of the New Orleans police in the New Yorker, writes:

“Everything is viewed through a racial lens in New Orleans, but it refracts differently there than elsewhere in the South. Louisiana was colonized first by the French, whose Code Noir encouraged intermarriage between whites and their black slaves to create a buffer class that might prevent insurrection; and briefly by the Spanish, whose custom of coartacion let slaves buy their freedom. By the time the United States took over, in 1803, the two customs had helped to create a large educated middle class of black freemen and black French Creoles that divided itself socially according to skin color. The Americans who poured into Louisiana made no such distinctions and generally treated all of them as inferiors, which rankled especially in New Orleans, where the most privileged blacks and Creoles lived.”

The plagiarism aside, Nagin’s comment seemed to me perfectly normal. It was the sort of thing I had heard in DC for years. And I didn’t mind it because it was my Chocolate City too. It still seems odd to many whites, but you really don’t have to be in the ethnic majority to love a place.

SAM SMITH is editor of the Progressive Review, where this column originally appeared.


Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.