On the fourth of July, before two black men were murdered by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, and before a sniper murdered five police officers (and hit a total of fourteen people) in Texas, I was home again, looking at the backlit dome of the U.S. Capitol, glowing against an impenetrable bank of cloud. The fireworks I was there to see were almost entirely invisible on account of weather, but the Capitol was like something out of a science fiction movie. It looked like the mothership.
A repeated guitar riff opens “Chocolate City” like tentative footsteps. One by one different instruments overlay it—keyboard, synthesizer, horns–all building up to something. “What’s happening CC?” George Clinton asks, loose, jocular. “They still call it the White House but that’s a temporary condition too. Can you dig it, CC?”
The lead single of the 1975 Parliament album of the same name, “Chocolate City” describes and celebrates Washington, DC as America’s blackest city. “There’s a lot of chocolate cities around,” Clinton talk-sings, “we’ve got Newark, we’ve got Gary, somebody told me we got L.A., and we’re working on Atlanta.” He pauses. “But you’re the capital.” And it’s here the chorus breaks in, a triumphant “Gaining on ya!” Those footsteps turn into triumphant march.
The best thing ever written about “Chocolate City” is by D.C. poet Kenny Carroll. “The Meanings of Funk,” published in the Washington Post in 1998, opens with an anecdote from his childhood, when his third-grade teacher commanded the class never to “refer to the nation’s capital as D.C. in my classroom.”
“Had I not been eight-years-old and a coward,” Carroll writes, “I would have told Mrs. Hillman that for us, Washington and D.C. were entities separate and apart.” He breaks down a division that now, nearly twenty years later, is somewhat of a cliché: “Washington was the White House, monuments, slick museums, ornate embassies; it was where our parents worked. D.C. was neighborhoods, playgrounds, stores, churches and relatives. It was where we lived.”
The work Carroll is doing is the work any D.C. native has to do when they describe where they’re from. For a city as hyper-visible as the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, the lived life of its citizens are as obscured as this year’s fireworks–a faint red glow behind a soup of cloud. You see marble columns, we see brick rowhouses. You think of Abraham Lincoln, we think of Frederick Douglass (“The sage of Anacostia”), Jean Toomer, Marvin Gaye. You hear Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” we hear go-go. We hear “Chocolate City.”
I would quote Carroll’s whole essay here if I could. He writes of the DC of the 1970s, when the city was over 70 percent black: “Of Parliament-Funkadelic, the struggle for home rule, whist games and the hand dance called the bop.” He also writes of the DC of 1998, a city on the cusp of a transformation few people (Carroll included) could see. In his essay, he grapples instead with the then-prevalent narrative of a place gripped by violence and drugs, with the District’s then-reputation as the nation’s “murder capital.”
“Today,” he observes, “The most common question for successful black Washingtonians is, ‘Why are you still in D.C.?’” Nearly two decades later, a more apt question might be: How are you still in DC? Or–more to the point–how can you still afford it?
I was born in DC in 1986, in a hospital that is now (fitting for this story) condos and a Trader Joe’s. The city was 68 percent black; Marion Barry had been mayor for seven years. I joined the District’s white minority–we made up a paltry 29 percent at the time. The city was and is intensely segregated: the transplanted and temporary and also mostly white denizens of “Washington” rarely interacted with people who made their lives in “DC.” But even the most sheltered white kid grew up, at the very least, with a black mayor. If their parents couldn’t handle it, they could move to Virginia.
My family initially lived in a white neighborhood (Cleveland Park), but we began to move a lot and to places beyond DC’s traditional boundaries of whiteness: Brookland in Northeast, Columbia Heights on the other side of Rock Creek Park. On Clifton Street, perched a short but steep walk up from U (a thoroughfare once known as Black Broadway), we were–to my knowledge–the only white people in the entire apartment complex. I went to public schools with black classmates, black teachers (Carroll among them), black principals. We read black books, celebrated black holidays, studied black history.
I watched without question the protests for reparations while off from school for DC Emancipation Day, which marks the abolition of slavery in the District. I was assigned to write about Alvin Ailey, Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Florence Mills. This is a weird set of credentials to lay out–who cares about my high school papers?–but the point I want to make isn’t about me but my teachers, my community, and the priorities they set. I was merely present, an act I cannot take credit for, a child-sponge soaking up the cultural and educational fruits of black DC. This meal wasn’t even for me, a little white girl, but I was there to eat it anyway.
For Carroll, “Chocolate City”–“Clinton’s cool, didactic diatribe, buoyed by five minutes of chitlin-cleaning funk”–articulated a potent vision of the place DC could be and sometimes even was. “Even before it Clinton put a beat to it,” he writes, “Chocolate City was a metaphorical utopia where black folks’ majority status was translated into an assertion of self-consciousness, self-determination and self-confidence.”
On the track, Clinton sing-says, “Hey, uh, we didn’t get our forty acres and a mule, but we did get you CC.”
My senior year of high school, I was recruited by a national scholarship program to go to college in a small, small town in Iowa. The program offers leadership scholarships on the basis of merit, but it’s clear—based on the geographic pools they choose to select from (housing segregation is real)—that it also functions as a half-coy, semi-veiled diversity initiative, especially for schools as suffocatingly white as this midwestern liberal arts school. And yet I was included, the single white recipient among a total of ten DC-area students.
It was a replication, in miniature, of my growing up: where I was once a white girl in a black city in a white country, I was again a white student in a scholarship group of color in a white college. I want to be clear that there is no hardship in this, just a kind of structural strangeness, one that became stranger the farther from DC I went. At home, everything made sense. It was all I had ever known. That first winter in Iowa, desperately homesick, my discount-store snow boots lined with plastic grocery bags, I tromped back and forth from my dorm room to the library through the snow–white on white on white–playing “Chocolate City” on repeat on my cd player.
I listened to all the DC songs I could find that first winter, and if I was in the right (or wrong) mood I cried along with them: The Blackbyrd’s “Rock Creek Park,” Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose,” even John Legend’s “She Don’t Have to Know,” which only mentions DC in briefest passing. It doesn’t make sense to cry to “Rock Creek Park” (the chorus is “Doin’ it in the park, doin’ it after dark,” repeated ad infinitum, plus a flute solo), but there I was. I was so hungry for home.
A cocoa-colored, syrup-covered National Mall is Chocolate City’s album cover: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol. In the song, Clinton imagines a black president–Muhammed Ali–and his cabinet: Ike Turner is the “Secretary of the Treasure”; Richard Pryor, “Minister of Education”; Stevie Wonder, the “Secretary of Fine Arts.” Aretha Franklin is first lady. The album came out in January of 1975. In December of the same year, Parliament released another of its most iconic albums: Mothership Connection. Clinton reflected on these two visions of black life—one wielding political and cultural clout in an idealized DC, the other exploring the limitless freedom of a mythologized space–in a 2006 interview. “We had put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House,” he said. “I figured another place you wouldn’t think black people would be was outer space.”
The change started before I left for school in 2005, but, being away, it was all the more clear: a rapid and alien reshaping of the city’s very geography. In 1997, the year before Carroll published The Meanings of Funk, the arena now known as the Verizon Center opened in Chinatown, the first spark of the city-clearing conflagration that would become gentrification. The hospital I was born in closed in 2002, a Starbucks (co-owned by Magic Johnson, whose face floated smiling above a cup of coffee on its back wall) opened on U Street in 2003, one of my apartment complex’s three buildings converted to condos in 2004, a new fence dividing their section of the courtyard from ours.
White people started showing up at the Wonderland Ballroom, white people started jogging down Sherman, white people started walking their tiny dogs on 14th. The Waffle Shop on Park (along with several square blocks around it) was bulldozed for a shopping center. The autobody shop where my mom got her car fixed was bulldozed for condos. The Nehemiah Shopping Center across the street was bulldozed for condos. The “Black Family Reunion” mural on 14th and Florida was bulldozed for condos. The barbershop on Belmont was not bulldozed, but it became a dry cleaner.
The wholescale destruction and subsequent reconstruction of my neighborhood arrived with the influx of new residents who fit somewhere on a scatterplot of young and college-educated and wealthy and white. (Shani O. Hilton’s 2011 Washington City Paper story, “Confessions of a Black Gentrifier” provides an important, alternative view of this phenomenon.) The DC that was 68 percent black when I was born was at 60 percent by 2000, 50 by 2010, and 48 by 2015.
And the demographic shifts–which arise in part from an influx of young white folk, but also, critically, the wholescale displacement of tens of thousands of black people–have only sped up since then. Between 2000 and 2010, the Census Bureau recorded a loss of 38 thousand black residents with a gain of 55 thousand white ones. In my lifetime the difference between DC’s black and white populations has dropped from 39 percentage points to 4. And in an effort to describe this profound and radical change–because how else could you describe it?–newspapers across the country reach out to Parliament.
The food puns are not exactly inexcusable (it’s in the title) but they aren’t super tasteful either: NPR’s “D.C., Long ‘Chocolate City,’ Becoming More Vanilla”; the Washington Post’s “From Chocolate City to Latte City”; the Washington Times’s “D.C.’s ‘Chocolate City’ moniker melting.” Ugh. At least, like George Clinton promised, we have a black president. In Columbia Heights, real estate prices have more than tripled. Zillow estimates three of the condos in the fenced-off building of our old apartment complex to be worth upwards of $730,000. In 2003, the most expensive of these was bought for $236,000. Since college, both of my parents have moved to more affordable housing in Maryland.
More and more coming home is like the bewildering space funk of Mothership Connection rather than the buoyant, brassy utopianism of Chocolate City. After our failed attempt to see the fireworks, I sat with high school friends at a family home. So many of us were out of town from somewhere. One, Baltimore-based artist Alex Alexander, talked about how her family sold their house for an incredible sum. Her parents still lived in DC–they bought an apartment with the proceeds–but Alexander sometimes still returned to the old place. The new owners had completely redone it, which was okay, she said, it was their house now. But it hurt too. We murmured in agreement, in recognition. What had we lost? What would it mean now that it was gone?
What DC has become, and will become, I don’t know. But I know the spirit Carroll wrote about in 1998, the spirit of “Chocolate City,” is still very much alive: community-oriented, creative, and often radical. I’m so moved by the work my friends (and fellow DC natives) are doing in the city: musician Christylez Bacon out there getting Grammy nods, writer and producer Yaani Supreme opening up a brilliant new bookstore in Southeast. After this week of heartbreaking loss, I find strength–the galvanizing kind, the kind that impels work–in “Chocolate City.”
“Chocolate City is no dream,” Clinton reminds me. I know because I’ve seen it.