How do you define the blackness of a city? For Black History Month, we challenged writers to explain why they think their city deserves the title of blackest city in America. And man, did they rep their cities hard. So now, we’re asking you, our readers, to vote for who made the strongest case. Here’s a recap:
From Harlem’s very pores drips blackness. Moreover, black humanity. Harlem is all of us: good, bad, indifferent. It is attitude, energy, spit game, furs, ice, poverty, violence, chuuuuch, hair braiding, check cashing, queerness, black doctors and numbers runners, mosques, funeral parlors and dibi, collard greens, chicken and waffles. It houses The Rucker tournament where streetball reigns supreme. A Harriet Tubman statue with roots in the ground. It is the roots of Dapper Dan and Dame Dash.
You can’t have a discussion of America’s blackest city without Birmingham. First of all, it is quite literally one of America’s blackest cities. Only Jackson, Miss. and Detroit have a larger percentage of black people than the Magic City. Or maybe I should call it “Iron City.” Or “Steel City.” (It’s the only city in the entire world that has all the ingredients necessary for making iron and steel—limestone, iron ore and coal.) Or “The ‘Ham.” Or “Bombingham.”
That’s how black Birmingham is—it has multiple nicknames.
There is absolutely no part of black life that D.C. hasn’t touched, invented, lent voice to, protested, fought for, fought against, influenced or birthed. D.C. has its own style, culture, food (yes, mumbo sauce is a food!), language and attitude. If an alien came to the world wanting to know everything about black life in America, he would only need to sit for a few hours in the Florida Ave. Grill talking to an old head. If the rest of the world was wiped off the map and the only place left was Washington, D.C., the story of black America’s history would still be alive and well since it’s all held in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
We gave y’all Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Arabian Prince and DJ Yella—more commonly known as N.W.A, or Niggaz Wit Attitudes. Their contribution to the culture was gangster rap. You couldn’t go anywhere in 1988 without hearing a song from either Eazy’s solo album or Straight Outta Compton, the group’s first studio album.
They gave us an eternal anthem to express our lack of trust or faith in law enforcement—“Fuck tha Police.” If that isn’t black as fuck, I don’t know what to tell you.
And who can forget the power of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party—a chapter so effective in its activism that BPP Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were targeted and executed by Chicago Police in 1969? Today, activist and author Charlene Carruthers is currently one of many carrying on that black radical tradition, raising the game by including feminism and queerness in her work to advance anti-violence and liberation.
Philly is the soundtrack to blackness, every facet of black life rolled into a hoagie of diasporic oneness. Every elastic, painful, ebullient chord, like Gerald Price’s mystically floating fingers across piano keys at Zanzibar Blue, or young brothers freestyle battling elder cats on trumpet at Ortlieb’s.
East St. Louis got a couple heavy hitters in the chamber (no pun intended). World-renowned dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham created a Performing Arts Center for local youth to hone their artistic craft. Jazz extraordinaire Miles Davis. Olympic Gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. And even though Tina “Switchin’ Hips Songstress” Turner and Ike “I Can’t Keep My Hands to Myself” Turner weren’t born in East. St. Louis, they spent a great deal of their career in the city—in fact, East St. Louis is where they first laid eyes on each other. Now based on what we know about that tumultuous-ass situation, that could’ve been the beginning of an end or end of a beginning—depends on who ya ask.
Atlanta is snooty Morehouse men alongside niggas smoking a blunt in the back of the shake club on two-dollar Tuesdays. “The A” is the dichotomy of Georgia Me and NeNe Leakes. It’s Waffle House and Real Housewives. It’s the center of hip-hop and R&B. It is the center of black hair, style, art and entertainment. Hotlanta gave birth to the nonviolent civil rights movement, but they will politely offer to knuck if one even considers themselves to be buck.
Oakland, Calif., took the wheel and made the first black motorcycle club, The East Bay Dragons. Oakland took the book and made a home for the longest standing black-owned bookstore in the nation, Marcus Books.
Beale Street can talk. She’s country, loud and a bit ghetto.
She’s bold like the blackness she exudes throughout the city.
She refuses to wear a slip when she goes to church and sings “I’ll Take You There” in the mass choir. She’s an alto.
La Chat is her third cousin. Gangsta Boo is her great niece.
She raises her children in South Memphis, on McClemore near Stax Records.
She builds her businesses in Orange Mound, the first black community in Memphis built by black people.
So no, we ain’t the blackest city in America. At least not by how things like “blackness” and “cities” and “America” are usually defined when making those determinations. BUT THOSE DEFINITIONS ARE WACK AS FUCK! THOSE ARE TRASH DETERMINATIONS! Because of course, it’s easy to be black if you’re in Harlem and the Schomburg is on one corner and Cam’ron is dutty wining cross the street. Of course, it’s not hard to be your blackest self if you’re surrounded with and perpetually validated by it. You’re black and proud and a block away from Howard? Whoopty fucking doo. Here’s a sugar cookie for you.
But try being unapologetically black in a city that attempts to shutter and shuffle blackness away whenever it has the opportunity to, like game-night hosts sweeping dust mites into coat closets before guests arrive. Try being black and proud while stuck in a jar of glue.
First of all, the wonderful paradise that we know as Miami would literally not be a thing without black people. I’m not even exaggerating. Many of the very first settlers of Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood in the mid-1880s were Bahamian immigrants. These black pioneers were particularly crucial to Miami’s beginning because they were knowledgeable about the tropical food and plants in the area. Soon after, Miami would become an official city. When it came time to incorporate in 1896, 368 men signed the charter for Miami to become legitimately recognized by the state of Florida. And 162 of those men were black. In fact, the first name on the charter is Silas Austin, a black man.
Most importantly, we’re survivors. Detroit is one of the few cities to tell the white man to go fuck himself and still be standing. Back when Coleman A. Young became our first black mayor after the 1967 Riots, which left dozens of people dead, he started building the black political power structure that would see unprecedented black control of Detroit up until 2014 when a white mayor finally reclaimed the throne. But between those iconic moments, there was no place in America where a black person could be more comfortable in their blackness than Detroit.
New Orleans is the blackest city because it’s the Mecca that led to the Harlem Renaissance, is the birth place of jazz, the chitlin circuit and the creative birth of bounce music starting with DJ Jimi and all of the New Orleans natives to follow.
New-Ark, New Jerusalem, aka “Brick City,” aka “The Bricks,” aka “Nooohk,” is so black that its homegrown legends include a slew of melanated culture slayers and innovators: Amiri Baraka and Redman; Whitney Houston and Shaquille O’Neal; Tisha Campbell and J.R. Smith; Sarah Vaughan and Savion Glover; Bill Bellamy and James Moody; Gloria Gaynor and John Amos; Matee Ajavon and Ernest Dickerson; Rah Digga and Andre J.; Shakur Stevenson and Wayne Shorter; Lords of the Underground and Driicky Graham; Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Temple and, not least, my feminist femme fatale with the sweetest voice, Faith Evans, a real-life Helen of Hip-Hop, who stoked the flames of one of rap’s most famous—and tragic—beefs, and, who incredibly may or may not have fucked both Pac and Big, two of the greatest who ever did it.
For one, we have the richest representation of the African diaspora in any major city. African Americans, Haitians, Trinidadians, Jamaican, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are all representing in this melting pot of black culture. Growing up here, your friends were likely from a million different places, so you picked up greetings outside of your own culture pretty easily: “Wha gwan?” “What’s Good” “Que Pasa?” “Sak Pase?”