Symposium on W. E. B. Du Bois: Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

Marcus Anthony Hunter
UC, Los Angeles


Zandria F. Robinson
Rhodes College


“Stop talking about the South,” Malcolm X chided audiences in his “Ballot or Bullet” speech, which he delivered in cities across the Midwest and Northeast in the months before Freedom Summer. “If you black, you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South. As long as you South of the Canadian border, you South.” Always followed by laughter and loud affirmations, this latter declaration runs contrary to dominant geographies of black life.

Customarily the North and South are physical and culturally distinct regions of the U.S. map.  On the accepted map of black life in the U.S., the Mason-Dixon Line is a mythical and actual barrier between freedom and enslavement, North and South, progressive race relations and Old South mores, and the Great Migration is the pathway from one part of the map to the other. Yet, following Malcolm X’s assertion and building on a range of data, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life destabilizes the Mason-Dixon line and reimagines the cultural, socio-economic, and political geography of black America as constitutive of multiple Souths, all below the Canadian border.

As a region, the South has always operated as scapegoat and cover in narratives about American racial progress. Rather than being seen as national atrocities, slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, and racial oppression are often cast as unique features of a “backwards” South “stuck in the past.” Conventional wisdom and scholarship indicate and often emphasize a linear geography of black American movement post-slavery reinforces this idea, as African Americans left the repression of the South for the relative freedom of the Midwest, Northeast, and West. Still, the particular atrocities of the South notwithstanding, other regions did not provide uniform protection from racial violence and structural inequality, particularly for the poorest African Americans. Since the Great Migration, and despite return migration to the South, the South has represented a world of impossible oppression and the North has been the site of opportunity, a place to realize freedom dreams.

Recent events make this a critical moment to trouble notions of where and how black people can be free, “as long as [they] are South of the Canadian border.” First, the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and other southern states, prompted by the murders of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston by a white man with a clear affinity for the flag, has both shone a spotlight on the South but also compelled Americans to think about these murders as a national, rather than a southern, atrocity. In tandem, the unabated and highly publicized murders of African Americans, made visible by social media and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, confound the easy geographical logic of bad South/good or better North.

Chocolate Cities is built on a simple premise: our current maps of black life are wrong. The deferred dreams of the Great Migration, including expanding poverty, hyper-incarceration, extrajudicial and police violence, and the diminishing opportunities urban black Americans found within and outside of the geographic South serve as undeniable structural evidence of this premise. To elucidate our argument, we demonstrate two social facts. Chocolate Cities offers a new cartography of the U.S. using what we call ‘The Black Map’—a geography that more accurately reflects the lived experiences and the future of black life in America, and thus of the nation. We draw on both cultural sources (film, music, fiction, playwrights) and more traditional academic sources (US decennial Census Data (1900-2010), oral histories, multi-year ethnography, photographs, national-state-local health and wealth data/reports, archives) to map black life in America’s chocolate cities—cities, towns, neighborhoods, streets, and communities in which black life and culture were concentrated, maintained, created, and defended. We also align these links and data by incorporating a number of autobiographies and biographies of black Americans. From the Seattle that begot Jimi Hendrix, to the Dallas that shaped Erykah Badu, to the Birmingham from which Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his most famous missive, the black map of the U.S. is consequentially different from our current geographical understandings of race and place in urban America. As the country moves more definitively to a majority-minority nation, this new urban geography will be increasingly important to our understanding of and approach to inequality, economic growth, and demographic change.