Friday, January 20, 2006

Chocolate City

Part of the flak over Nagin's chocolate city comment (he said it when he testified in front of Congress and no one seemed to notice though that time he did smile as he said it) is that no one has a sense of humor when they are looking for a fight. No one seems to know about the Funkadelic song or that other cities (DC and Detroit especially) have also been referred to as chocolate cities and there were no white riots. The only commentary I've seen that even slightly understands the humor and truth and joy in being a chocolate city is Sam Smith. My favorite part:

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.

The whites who live in New Orleans proper, not the suburbs, love this city just like that, without having to be the majority and able to appreciate and mingle and second line and eat red beans on Monday and take down Christmas decorations on January 6 and only eat king cakes between King's Day and Mardi Gras. Few whites that I have talked to, who really love the city, who really live in the city, who really appreciate the city, took offense. Most nodded, many smiled and kept trudging through the New Normal. New Orleans IS different. That's why I moved back 9 years ago, that's why I came to Jazz Fest every year when I didn't live here, that's why I lived New Orleans even when I wasn't in New Orleans.

Instead of giving Nagin shit when he's trying to counteract some of the bullshit the New Orleans diaspora hears and trying to tell folks to come on home, it's still home, people need to ask the Red Cross where all that money they collected is, ask why Mississippi has gotten more money, trailers and insurance payouts than Louisiana, get the men in trucks back to work. No offense but people not from here who can't get with the program need to stay the fuck out.

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