Natalie Hopkinson, author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, points her readers to another important city in flux: Washington, D.C.
“Ever since Washington was carved from two slaveholding states in 1791, it has been a special place for black Americans,” Hopkinson writes for The New York Times.
Nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln freed the slaves in Washington. It was the birthplace of Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston. It incubated the great tradition of go-go music. More to the point, it was the country’s first city to have an African-American majority.
But “the once-majority-black city immortalized in George Clinton’s 1975 funk classic “Chocolate City,” has lost its black majority,” writes Hopkinson.
Although the hard demographic numbers only came out last year, Hopkinson says Washington has been in the midst of an identity crisis for some time.
“Black privilege has always been relative. The city’s median black household income is $36,948; for whites it is $99,401. This demographic reality creates a crude, ethically charged math, and everyone who owns a stake in Washington calculates with it. The presence of white faces is the most reliable sign of the quality of a school. The more white people move in, the higher the property values go. The city’s population is growing, but each black family that leaves a school or neighborhood makes it richer.”
But the troubling picture of urban change Hopkinson describes is not as bleak as it sounds. As an African-American woman who arrived in Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University, Hopkinson remembers the presence of African-Americans participating in all levels of civic and cultural affairs.
“Some days, walking the streets of Washington, a seemingly colder place where people don’t always exchange greetings, I feel nostalgic for the days of black privilege that George Clinton crooned about,” writes Hopkinson. “But given the warmth of many of my new neighbors of many races, I would like to see the transformation around me as racial progress. The change in attitudes that caused a generation of whites to release their fears and return to the urban centers their parents fled a generation ago is the same change in attitudes that allowed millions of white Americans, in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth, to vote for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.”
Read the full op-ed piece here.