- Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove
In Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital, Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove deliver a comprehensive history of the District of Columbia with specific focus on the crucial role race played in the development of the nation's capital and the city's tenuous relationship with democracy and self-rule. Asch and Musgrove's examination [End Page 413] begins in the colonial era in 1608 and concludes in the early twenty-first century with an epilogue set during President Barack Obama's first term. In writing about four hundred years of history, Asch and Musgrove incorporate many factors that affect urban areas in general, such as housing crises and public education, but effectively show how Washington, D.C., in serving as the nation's capital, further complicates these issues. Race also played a vital role; Asch and Musgrove argue that it is "the most significant explanation for social, economic, and political divisions in the city" (p. 3).
One of the pervasive debates within Washington history is that regarding home rule, the question of whether Washington citizens can govern locally or if the city will be under the jurisdiction of the federal government. A similar persistent issue is whether Washington citizens should have representation in the federal government. Asch and Musgrove draw a pivotal link between the growing disenfranchisement of Washington residents and concerns about race, explaining that in the political changes after the Civil War, white Washington citizens preferred to fully relinquish self-rule and accept federal oversight rather than allow for the threat of black political power. The authors likewise effectively argue that the city's being under the control of the federal government resulted in the District of Columbia's serving as a testing ground for legislation and social programs, such as with the emancipation of slaves during the 1860s.
Asch and Musgrove have written Chocolate City with the aim "to deepen popular understanding about the ways that race and democracy interact" (p. 4). In keeping with that purpose, they do not interweave historiography throughout the book but provide a highly useful "Essay on Sources" that highlights other scholarship on the District of Columbia, both general foundational works and ones that focus specifically on race in Washington. Their book, as they acknowledge, builds on the work of other scholars and serves to synthesize and provide a comprehensive view, while also seeking to fill in previously neglected areas. Among the primary sources, the authors incorporate a range of local D.C. newspapers, interviews, legislative records, papers of important figures such as Mary Church Terrell, and crucial court cases pertaining to issues such as housing. Prevalent throughout the book are stories of individuals that showcase the personal stake of the contest over race and democracy within the city. These stories are illuminating for both a popular audience and historians alike. Chocolate City is clearly and engagingly written and well balanced overall in terms of attention given to periods and topics—a considerable accomplishment given the book's chronology. Each chapter adds to the overall argument and story and earns its place within the narrative.
It seems almost cruel to recommend additions for a book of this length and scope, but there are a few areas that could use elaboration. Asch and Musgrove interweave race with other historical lenses such as economics and politics but could have expanded on the intersectionality of race and gender. Though in general Asch and Musgrove effectively place D.C. within the larger context of American history, little is said about the city's reaction to the Vietnam War, which is especially of concern considering the disproportionately high number of African Americans drafted into the war. Asch and Musgrove beautifully argue for the importance of race in terms of whiteness and blackness...