A chocolate city is no dream, It's my piece of the rock

Washington, DC is my hometown. It’s a city mostly known for stone monuments and crafty politicians, but anyone who has ever lived here knows DC has a soul much deeper than political pandering and a spirit that lives far beyond the grassy expanse of the National Mall or the Smithsonian.

Home-rule rally, 1966. Photograph courtesy of MLK Library.

Home-rule rally, 1966. Photograph courtesy of MLK Library.

DC has a soul rooted in the swampy shacks that once lined the Southwest waterfront; in the rolling hills of Howard University; in the smoky jazz clubs on U Street; in the swaying sweaty masses who packed the Black Hole and other Go-Go’s to hear Rare Essence, Backyard Band, and Chuck Brown; in all the places people sang, danced, bled, married and died; in the places people made their lives and raised their families.  

Chocolate City is where my soul thrived. In 1957, DC became the first city in the nation to have a majority Black population. By 1970, Blacks made up 71% of the city’s residents.  Having such a sizable African-American majority meant our Blackness was never a monolith.  Black people were present in every aspect of society. We were doctors and heroin addicts, city councilmen and number runners, opera singers and rappers – Black folks ruled it all.

This soul will not die, because it cannot die, but it is transforming out of necessity. Native Washingtonians are scrambling to maintain community. Artists are struggling to hold onto spaces where they can create, be of like-mind, and be free.    It’s the soul of the city that’s being crushed under the weight of greedy developers and politicians, under the weight of “progress” and transience.

Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson of Rare Essence, 1990. Photograph by Darrow Montgomery/ Washington City Paper.

Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson of Rare Essence, 1990. Photograph by Darrow Montgomery/ Washington City Paper.

As a musician, I feel an obligation to carry this soul into every space I’m blessed to be able to raise my voice. I am a product of history, as we all are, and my work is nurtured by all those who came before.

Two years ago I began performing a piece entitled “Cecily Salutes DC.” It’s an evening of music and storytelling dedicated to my hometown and it’s musical contributions to the world. It’s a project that developed from questioning myself and my intentions. I asked myself, “What do you want to hold onto? What is valuable to you?”

The answer came easily. I am tied by geography and spirit to an ancestral lineage of sound, yet this lineage is being either erased or exploited. I decided to use this show as an opportunity to celebrate and honor that lineage, and connect to it more intentionally. I knew I wanted the show to be at a culturally significant location that had history in its bricks. I was fortunate to be able to host it at Bohemian Caverns. Four months after my show there, Bohemian Caverns closed its doors. At this time, it still remains shuttered. What once was the bustling heart of U Street’s jazz scene and a gathering place for the city’s music community, since the time of Duke Ellington, is now shut up and empty. The closing of the Caverns made the purpose of my show, and the introspection that inspired it, even more apparent for me.

Marion Barry’s first mayoral run, 1978. Photograph by James A. Parcell/ Washington Post /Getty Images.

Marion Barry’s first mayoral run, 1978. Photograph by James A. Parcell/Washington Post/Getty Images.

Developers, and arts organization trying to profit from the work of developers, will say DC’s music scene is “sleepy,” while they paint Duke Ellington’s face on the side of their buildings. They don’t see the irony, thus it is my duty to make it clear. Not to gain their respect, but to make sure the truth is not denied. As Zora Neale Hurston stated so succinctly, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”  

Chocolate City’s soul fed Duke Ellington, Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Bad Brains, Fugazi, Gil Scott-Heron, Donald Byrd, Richard Smallwood, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Shirley Horn, Pearl Bailey, Chuck Brown, Eva Cassidy, Johnny Gill, Stacey Lattisaw, Langston Hughes, Dave Chappelle, Taraji P. Henson… the list goes on.

As DC-based creatives, place-keeping should be a central part of our practice and our work. Community activist Jenny Lee calls place-keeping “not just preserving the facade of the building but also keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive.” We must keep asking ourselves, What do I want to hold onto? It is this point of reflection that keeps cultural memories alive and makes it clear that DC’s Soul cannot simply be erased or exploited.




"Chocolate City!

What's happening CC?

We didn't get our forty acres and a mule

But we did get you, CC!

A chocolate city is no dream

It's my piece of the rock and I dig you, CC!

God bless Chocolate City!”

- Parliament Funkadelic

EssaysCecily BumbrayDC