This episode looks at the topic of Erasing and Forgetting as part of putting ourselves in history.
Episode 11, Isn’t It Time. This episode includes some lines from “Chocolate City,” by George Clinton, on the 1975 album of the same name.
The last episode of Isn’t It Time looked at the topic of relationships within the early Exodus narrative, including the relationship of the biblical Joseph, the 11th of Jacob’s 12 sons and an important leader in Mitzrayim, and the rest of his large extended family to the surrounding culture.
This episode looks at the topic of erasing and forgetting as part of putting ourselves in history.
The funk band Parliament released its “Chocolate City” album in 1975. The title song references DC’s status, at the time, as a majority Black city, honoring its Black culture and leadership:
…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
…The last percentage count was eighty
You don’t need the bullet when you got the ballot
Are you up for the downstroke, CC?
Chocolate City — Are you with me out there?…
— George Clinton
Since 2010, DC has gained nearly 100,000 new residents, many of whom don’t know DC history and music in a sense similar to the new Pharaoh — introduced in Exodus 1:8 — who “didn’t know Joseph” or his contributions to the nation. In the last 20 years, DC has lost (net) 80,000 Black residents and is longer majority Black.
So it was perhaps unsurprising when a battle erupted in DC in 2019 over music and public space at an intersection of (1) long-standing culture exemplified by a corner store blasting Go-Go music, with 2) new luxury exemplified by relatively new condo residents complaining about noise.
Julien Broomfield, then a senior at Howard University, created the hashtag #DontMuteDC, launching a movement celebrating DC’s signature music and culture. Ron Moten, a fellow member of the Cross River Dialogue and now director of DC’s new Go-Go Museum, co-founded the “Don’t Mute DC” campaign with Dr. Natalie Hopkinson, author and journalist, now teaching at American University but then at Howard.
The incident served to highlight divides in connection to DC’s history in general and, more specifically, to “Chocolate City.”
Aspects of local culture, including drummers and other street musicians, have become focal points for conflict, often pitting longer-term and newer DC residents and businesses against one another. But many newer DC folks joined in the Don’t Mute DC movement, and many older ones opposed it, or remained uninterested.
In addition, people newer to DC — and anyone listening to governmental rhetoric — could easily be fooled into believing that the District has always universally celebrated Go-Go music and culture. But designation in 2020 as DC’s “official music” obscures years when it was blamed for drugs, violence and other societal ills.
So much of the Don’t Mute DC campaign and the Sound Proof DC campaign that preceded it — also about noise complaints in the city — is about who gets to take up space, sight, and sound… physically and culturally. It’s also about who decides for the people of the District. And who tells the story.
A Century of Retellings
Just last week, the U.S. Congress held an oversight committee hearing at which Representative Gary Palmer, a Republican from Alabama, called our schools “inmate factories,” while he and other Representatives declared DC out of control and unfit to govern ourselves. A few words have changed, but the sentiments are no different than those of Senator John Tyler Morgan, a Democrat from Alabama, explaining in 1890 that stripping DC of its self-governance during Reconstruction was a necessary step akin to “burning down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”
…this remark was in the Congressional Record at the time and has been widely quoted. Find it, e.g., in Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove (p.176), and in Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid’s program, “DC 101” — see below….
And, just as there are contemporary DC leaders who — intentionally or not — subvert DC’s own self-government, Alexander Shepherd, a former governor of DC as well as a businessman and part owner of the Evening Star newspaper (in the late 1890s) worked against voting rights for the District, saying: “The difficulty with suffrage here is the slum element” —Chocolate City, p.177
Asch and Musgrove explain in Chocolate City how a particular narrative of DC’s governance during the interracial years of Reconstruction was shaped and promoted by those who sought control of the District and its resources. Similarly, a “soft on crime” narrative is shaped, without factual evidence, and promoted by those who seek to undermine self-rule in the District and divide DC from supporters.
Who is telling a story and why is hugely important. This is a lesson from DC’s history and from the Exodus story. We see from the early verses of Exodus how quickly a whole people can be dehumanized in the way a story is told — and how disastrous, even fatal, such narratives can be. Learning to consider the origin and consequences of narratives we’ve inherited, historical and biblical, is a key step toward taking responsibility for those stories and creating new ones.
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This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?” Peace
City history starts around 9 minutes in — reference to Sen Morgan is at minute 12.