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I tried to wash the South off me the first time my Somalian roommate (from northern Virginia) mocked my so-called "country" accent. We were in our freshman year of college in Poughkeepsie, New York, a city much smaller than my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. I wasn't new to the "North," but my accent was news to me. In North Carolina, I wasn't a real Southerner, because my parents were from Michigan, even though their parents were from Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama.
But North Carolinians would (and still) get in their feelings should you compare them to, say, Mississippians. To be North-of is to be less regressive—is to be one step, however tiny, closer to Black freedom.
I tried to wash the South off me even after I sat at Black dinner tables in New York and Massachusetts, eating the same food I ate in North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. Sweet potato pie was better than pumpkin pie no matter where you were in the country. The late, great Aretha Franklin is still a Queen to Black people in Memphis and Oakland just as she is to Black folk in Detroit. And a cop, a random neighbor, a casual passerby can steal a Black life of any age and any gender anywhere—Staten Island, Ferguson, Chicago, Compton, Atlanta, or New Orleans.
The more I understood these connections, the more I wanted to both embrace and remix the words of the great writer and Mississippian—Margaret Walker Alexander—that the Black South "is a nation within a nation."
What might a Black map of the United States look like?
This map draws on the geographic vision Marcus Anthony Hunter & Zandria F. Robinson lay out in Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life to give one attempt. The map starts with some of the regions and key cities the authors highlight in their overview of the Black map. But I wanted also to foreground some of the smaller majority-Black cities and towns across the US which might not show up on a conventional map of the country, and so I drew in data from the US census to label incorporated places which the Census identified as majority-Black. The glow in the background highlights census blockgroups, tracts or designated places which had over forty percent of their population identified as Black (alone or in combination with other racial or ethnic identities). All census data was according to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey.
In some ways, this is a speculative cartography — some of the named places are truly tiny population-wise, and the choice of what to name was often arbitrary — but each of them, the many places highlighted but unnamed, and the many more which aren't even legible to the statistical viewpoint of this map, is a locus of the Black place-making which Hunter & Robinson argue is "the light toward both true civilization and broad liberation."
Within that Black nation, according to sociologists Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson, are thousands of "chocolate cities." Hunter and Robinson's aptly titled book, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, is named partially in homage to George Clinton's 1970s homage to the rapidly waning chocolate city of Washington, D.C. By the time I picked the book up last year, I'd been back in Durham for six years, and had started grappling with the histories and inner workings of chocolate cities in the South scarcely recognized by anyone—West End, Soul City, Princeville, and Navassa in North Carolina, Institute in West Virginia, Tamina and Sandbranch in Texas, White Hall and Hobson City in Alabama, Glendora and Mound Bayou in Mississippi, Arthurtown and Bluefield in South Carolina.
These are small places (populations under 5,000) where Black folk sought (and still seek) greater social freedoms, political autonomy, and an opportunity to build their own economies. Though many of those dreams have yet to be realized or sustained, similar strivings of Black placemaking are replicated across the country not only in other physical places of the country—like Allensworth, California, Dearfield, Colorado, and Rentiesville, Oklahoma—but also in the ways that Black folk gather informally in any space and time, whether in a park or at someone's home. Hunter and Robinson define a chocolate city as wherever two or more Black people are gathered. The very act of Black gathering can be, by itself, an act of placemaking and of seizing power.
Chocolate Cities argues that Black places are fundamentally connected in ways obscured by the physical geographies and political boundaries conveyed on maps of the United States—and indeed across the globe.
Chocolate Cities argues that Black places are fundamentally connected in ways obscured by the physical geographies and political boundaries conveyed on maps of the United States—and indeed across the globe. These revelations stemmed from the authors' own conversations about the similarities of their experiences in the chocolate cities of Memphis (Robinson) and Philadelphia (Hunter), despite all the ways that geographers, sociologists, and everyday Black folk would insist their experiences were different. But as they articulate via chocolate city anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston of Eatonville, Florida, and Harlem, New York, "differences in geography and languages are merely just differences in sounds… the sentiment is the same."
To further emphasize that "the maps are wrong," the authors create literal and narrative chocolate maps to help us comprehend two important things:
- Black American social life is best understood as occurring wholly in the South;
- Black Americans bring the South with them wherever they go.
That is, if we understand the South as a representation of both "systemic inequity" and Black interconnectedness, then the South must necessarily be everywhere. Through the four parts of the book—the map, the village, the soul, and the power—Hunter and Robinson convincingly demonstrate not only how Blackness is fundamentally linked across space and time, but also, importantly, how those links generate a form of sacred power that sustains Black folk through every era, and every circumstance. The conduit for making these connections real in each part of the book are studies of Black cultural and intellectual figures from every corner of the Black nation—from Hurston in Eatonville, to Aretha Franklin in Detroit, to James Baldwin in Harlem, to Tupac in Los Angeles.
[I]f we understand the South as a representation of both "systemic inequity" and Black interconnectedness, then the South must necessarily be everywhere.
The "map" demonstrates the new Southern boundaries of the United States created by Black physical, intellectual, and cultural migration—such as Baldwin's mother's move from the Deep South to Harlem. The "village" represents the various forms of placemaking arising from those Black migrations—the physical places and the spaces of solidarity and care, like Ida B. Wells' migration from chocolate cities in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to Memphis, to Chicago, taking care to tirelessly document the conditions of Black folk in every place. The "soul" offers a sonic and spiritual genealogy of Black music as it traveled through chocolate cities like Tupac's Los Angeles and Big Freedia's New Orleans, connecting Black people and traditions along its journey. Finally, the "power" illustrates the intersection of the previous three themes, offering readers a non-dominant alternative to thinking about power of all kinds—cultural, social, economic, and political.
Black folk here, there, and everywhere, revise the rules of domination to create thriving existences for themselves and their communities. From abolitionist newspaper publisher Mary Ann Shadd Cary's decision to return to Washington, D.C. decades after escaping to Canada following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to Victor H. Green's publication of The Negro-Motorist Green Book to help folks like Dionne Warwick navigate the "way to Santa Fe," Hunter and Robinson magnify the knowledges and strategies of creating Black lives, whatever their locations or conditions.
These interlocking experiences, traditions, languages, and ways of knowing were not just an intellectual journey, but also a spiritual balm for the younger me who thought the South was just one static place that liberation abandoned. Truth is, the South is the only "where" where Black folk can get free together.
Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life. By Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. $85 (hardcover); $29 (paper).