Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ray Nagin's Martin Luther King Speech

I have to start by saying that I like Ray Nagin, personally. I’ve never met him, but I’ll bet he listens to The Low End Theory. I’ll bet that when he’s talking to a pretty girl his eyes get a little bit moist. I’ll bet that, up close, you can see places where his strange goatee-mustache configuration is nicked and uneven. In other words, I believe that Ray Nagin is a real person. I believe were seeing the true Ray Nagin, not the mayor of New Orleans, when he deviated from his flight plan and used the MLK speech to promote his agenda to rebuild New Orleans as a “chocolate” city. That’s right, New Orleans is going “chocolate”, y’all. Get up and get get get down, New Orleans is a cho-co-late town. It's all a little bit sad, really.

Nagin’s speech suggests that he still hasn’t recovered his equilibrium, or that he’s lost it for good, and if you conceive of Nagin as an embodiment of his city, then New Orleans has a long way to go. Nagin was put in a horrible situation by the Bush Administration during Katrina. He had to take some shots then; it was his job to do anything he could, including making a clown of himself, to help the city. But now that things have settled down a bit, he probably needs to dial back on the racism and start building bridges, creating coalitions, and all the other boring but necessary tasks that politicians are paid to undertake. Instead, he used the MLK speech to make these ridiculous pronouncements about “chocolate."

Here’s the real problem, as far as Nagin is concerned; it’s expected that these comments would alienate white viewers and voters, and you could argue that he’d intended to do just that, but it would only be a viable strategy if the “chocolate city” idea inspired and motivated the black constituency. Judging from the footage I saw, in which Nagin seemed to be attempting to work the crowd by falling into the cadences and rhetorical devices of a preacher, the “chocolate city” comments were not only a failure in retrospect, but they went over like a lead balloon in real-time as well. If you listen to the crowd reaction in the video clips, you’ll hear an isolated exclamation or two, but the general reaction seems to have been mystification, as if even Nagin’s eager and supportive audience was thinking, “Wait, what’s ‘chocolate’ got to do with Dr. King?” You’ll have to ask Ray, but I’m not even sure he really knows.

And what about the use of the word “chocolate” as opposed to “black” or “African-American” or “the people”? What does the use of “chocolate” reveal about Mr. Nagin’s view of the word? There are obvious sexual connotations to the use of the word “chocolate”, as well as a kind of seventies swingers-vibe. One thinks of Wilt Chamberlain and his 10,000 concubines, or of Darryl Dawkins and his “Chocolate Thunder” backboard-shattering dunks. Seeing Nagin up there bobbing and weaving, working himself into a frenzy, you get the impression that he was picturing himself as part of that lineage – a modern-day Shaft of sorts, updated for the new millennium, all about the people, yes, down with Dr. King, for sure, down with that, but with a little something left for the ladies, too. Got to love the ladies. As Nagin delivered his speech he might have been imaging the balconies along the French Quarter overflowing with Nubian princesses who would whip up their tops and call out his name as he passed by.

Of course, the speech was picked up and run on all the cable news outlets and quickly became a major story to which Nagin was obliged to respond. His explanation that he got carried away and caught up in the moment was believable, and it reinforced my idea that Nagin is really a rather unsophisticated and decent man at heart. Nagin had a golden opportunity, after his comments, to play the race card all over again, and to further divide the city along racial lines. In so doing, he might have guaranteed his re-election. If you think that’s a crazy idea, look to Detroit, where the “Hip-Hop Mayor”, Kwame Kilpatrick, was just re-elected, defeating an African-American challenger, Freeman Hendrix, largely by positioning himself as the “blacker” of the two candidates. Kilpatrick was headed for defeat until the Grim Reaper intervened in the form of Rosa Parks' death. I'm not saying Kilpatrick milked Rosa Parks' funeral for his own personal gain, but I did enjoy the portion of his eulogy where he revealed that the reason Rosa went to the front of the bus was that Freeman Hendrix was occupying the last seat in the back and refused to give it up. As an aside, I’m not even sure what it means to be “blacker” than someone else, but the implications are not good. It seems to me that when you get into the individuating characteristics of any culture (“whiter”, “more Jewish”, “blacker”) you’re really talking about the behaviors and attitudes that are seen as roadblocks to understanding and integration.

Nagin had the same opportunity in New Orleans; that is, he could’ve defended his speech and accused the Bush administration (again) of racism. By circling the wagons, he could’ve advanced his political credibility at the expense of his personal credibility. Instead, remarkably, he apologized. He claimed he’d gotten caught up in the passion of the moment, and that he’d said things that he simply didn’t mean. This was not good for Nagin the politician but it was probably good for Nagin, the man. Given that he stood to gain very little by his apology, I believe in its sincerity, and I accept it.

Now, having said all that, I have to offer one additional, and far more skeptical, explanation for Nagin's apology. Perhaps, after the speech, he huddled with his team and they decided that since the "chocolate city" comments hadn't been greeted with any enthusiasm, it was best to distance themselves immediately. Perhaps Nagin made an attempt to divide the city and, unsure that it could be carried off successfully, went into a calculated retreat. Perhaps that's true, but I hope not. In this age of focus groups and media managers and George Bush's clumsy reading of scripted speeches and metal boxes sticking out of suit coats, it's nice to think that someone was being genuine, even if they were genuinely offensive.


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