New Orleans: The Land of Chocolate

At the nutty center of Mayor Ray Nagin’s delicious chocolate metaphor…

Life is like a box of chocolates: nutty, fruity, potentially deadly. Chocolate means different things to different people. For some, it is the gilded gooey gateway to eatin’ Eden. For others, it is a hip-huggin’, artery-cloggin’, insulin-joggin’ forbidden fruit. Though there are both white and dark, and sweet and bitter forms of chocolate, our mental image is of a dark brown, sweet substance.

For decades “chocolate” has been largely used as a flattering metaphor for a dark brown color. For example, the term “chocolate wenge” refers to a calming, deep-colored wood, or the term “chocolate lab” refers to a dark breed of the super-friendly Labrador Retriever. The movie title “Chocolat – Verbotene Sehnsucht” (1988) is a romantic reference to a black man’s skin. This metaphor’s flattery is not specifically divisive – at least no more divisive than love or affection.

On Martin Luther King Day, 2006, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin sweetened up to a mostly black audience with the proclamation “It’s time for us to rebuild New Orleans — the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans”. The statement was immediately held by some as being racially charged, and was promptly shackled in soundbytes across the world. Given a speedy and public trial by a foul, curt press, Nagin defended his word by testifying that chocolate is made by mixing chocolate with milk, resulting in a delicious drink.


Then I looked it up – it’s true! That is, the definition of “chocolate“, according to lexiguru Merriam-Webster includes:

“1 : a beverage made by mixing chocolate with water or milk”

Aside from this dictionary reference, we have the movie title “Like Water for Chocolate“, which implies that we need not preface the word “chocolate” with “hot” when speaking of “hot chocolate“. This gave Mayor Nagin an air-tight alibi for his allegedly racist rhetoric. In summation, his sentence was found not guilty, but was held in contempt on the grounds of its limited appeal.

Context is as vital to understanding metaphor as source and target – sometimes forces such as culture, dialect or jargon may broaden or narrow the true, intended meaning. Take the old fightin’ ‘phor “capitalist dog“: if “dog” is taken to refer to its literal definition (“canine“), we can assume the metaphor refers to stereotypical attributes such as ruthlessness or aggressiveness, while; if we take “dog” at its slang, visual meaning (“ugly woman“), we may conclude the metaphor is refering to unsightliness or undesireability. Knowing that the context is political rather than personal, and from a socialist anti-”dog-eat-dog” source, we understand the intended insult to mean the dog is a “canine“. However, in their haste, the Russians had missed their target, unaware that in this culture, the dog is not seen as a ruthless, aggressive beast, but as a loyal, spittleful best friend who fetches Frisbees.

Here is the quote from Mayor Nagin, partly found here at CNN:

It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild New Orleans — the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” the mayor said. “This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn’t be New Orleans.”

So did Nagin cook up a tasteful, colorful remark about racial homogeny, or did he serve a bitter, off-color separatist comment? Was he making a subtle reference to the funky album “Chocolate City” and its many descendant forms, or was his statement without roots at all, and simply tossed together to convey a quick point?

It seems clear by the context that the mayor was using the popular metaphor for “black skin“, rather than a new one implying a blend of two colours. This view is furthered by the resulting mental image of a dark brown liquid, rather than a grey or swirled mix. Finally, sadly, his defence made no mental image that included Asian or Hispanic skin. The following day, his apology replaced his off-the-cuff defence, and included Asians and Hispanics in his new-found Land of Chocolate.

The metaphor “chocolate” is certainly a positive one here. Its appearance reminds us of Reverend Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition or Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s use of the word “spectrum” (as seen at the Observatory!). Back in the good olde days, the Rolling Stones spun out the sweet and sour note “Brown Sugar” while Parliament put to wax and paper the pro-black-culture “Chocolate City“. These metaphors, together, typify the politically-drenched racial sweet tooth of contemporary society. Our rhetoric is decidedly candy-coated, our colours bright and happy. Sweet = good (eg: “sweet success“).

It wasn’t always this way. We dug a deep hole of rhetoric years ago, with hateful, degrading terms, often referring to black base materials of little worth and low altitude. Back-room jokes about blacks were heavy on physical appearance and stereotypes. These (primarily) metaphors are all but banished now, and we’ve moved from being rhetorical antagonists to being rhetorical apologists. We’ve clinically flushed out our language, taking hygenic care of our mouths, so as to stop and prevent further decay. And as we delicately work towards repairing these deep-rooted wounds, we are painfully aware that one slip may strike a nerve.

Our new colorful, sweet metaphors are now chosen with a child’s tastes and an adult’s responsibility. We take awkward steps forward, we slip, we learn. Could it be that society is finally growing up?


On May 20th, 2006, months after Mayor Nagin used the chocolate metaphor, he was re-elected in a tight run-off with Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu.

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