THE BLOG
01/17/2006 07:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Etymology of Nagin's "Chocolate City"

The media world is buzzing with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's use of the phrase "Chocolate City" in describing his hope that all of his city's residents return, leaving it ethnically unchanged. While Nagin has qualified his remark by saying that he meant "chocolate" as in "chocolate milk" - mixing white and black - his phrasing echoed that of a powerful leader that came before him: Clinton. That's George Clinton - songwriter, bandleader, and architect of the modern funk sound.

I don't know whether Nagin has heard the classic 70's era track "Chocolate City" by Parliament/Funkadelic, but Clinton was making a political point when he wrote the song and I suspect Nagin intended to make the same one.

Shallow media pundits tend to describe Southern states in particular as "red," but they're actually fields of red with blue stars on them. The blue stars are the cities, which by and large hold black majorities and are therefore strongly Democratic.

Clinton's song reflects the political power that African Americans and other minorities can wield when they gain the majority in any US city, North or South, as well as the discomfort and white flight that sometimes follows. As pianist Bernie Worrell vamps jazz chords and bassist Bootsy Collins vocalizes in a swooping basso profundo, the singer (rapper, actually) addresses the following words to Clinton's former home town (and mine) of Washington DC:

They still call it the White House
But that's a temporary condition, too.
Can you dig it, CC ("chocolate city")?

There's a lot of chocolate cities around
We've got Newark, we've got Gary
Somebody told me we got L.A.
And we're working on Atlanta
But you're the capital, CC

Hey, uh, we didn't get our forty acres and a mule
But we did get you, CC, heh, yeah
God bless CC and its vanilla suburbs

Ah, blood to blood
Ah, players to ladies
The last percentage count was eighty
You don't need the bullet when you got the ballot
Chocolate city
Are you with me out there?

And when they come to march on ya
Tell 'em to make sure they got their James Brown pass
And don't be surprised if Ali is in the White House
Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure
Richard Pryor, Minister of Education
Stevie Wonder, Secretary of FINE arts
And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady
Are you out there, CC?
A chocolate city is no dream
It's my piece of the rock and I dig you, CC

It's a song that makes light of racial conflict, playfully but with an edge - a chorus of people sounding like they just walked in off the street keeps chanting "Gainin' on ya!" The singer mutters asides like "movin' in all around ya" and "can't you feel my breath up around your neck?" The song ends, "Just got New York, I'm told ..."

Setting the song's great groove aside (which isn't easy), Clinton is making a valid point about black political power. It's a point that's not lost on the Republican political machine, which has used every weapon in its arsenal - including some that aren't legal - to wage demographic war on minority voters. (Remember Ohio and Florida ...)

Many have noted the political reasons for letting the black majority of New Orleans scatter, as I did when I described it as "conservative social engineering." As Harry Shearer pointed out, Nagin's use of the phrase was "an awkward attempt to express a real concern." But it may have been a great musician, rather than a preacher, that Nagin was trying to channel. The musical reference would probably not be lost on a Crescent City crowd.

In any case, the point was a valid one - clarifications about "white milk" notwithstanding. We must not allow the refugees of Katrina to be torn permanently from their homes, or effectively disenfranchised - not to benefit the Republican Party of Louisiana, or for any other reason.

P. S. While this may have been maladroit, his whole "God is mad at America" thing was just silly. I'd suggest leaving the whole "Supreme Being As Rageful 'Micro-Manager'" routine to Pat Robertson, who's had a lot more practice at it.

A Night Light