Caribbean and Creole in New Orleans
Caribbean and Creole in New Orleans
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents an ethnographic study of the continuing significance of the Saint-Domingue refugees in the racial and ethnic identifications of the Creoles in New Orleans. This study is based on interviews with the descendants of the refugees who have Louisiana Creole ancestry that extends back to Saint-Domingue/Haiti. The chapter considers the racial practices in colonial Louisiana and compares them with the social and cultural transformations that occurred following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It then considers how this legacy continues to shape understandings of race and ethnicity in New Orleans.
While most of the United States has historically been dominated by a ‘black/white’ racial binary, New Orleans – as well as many other parts of Louisiana – has long been shaped by a tripartite division that included a thriving community of free people of colour who were socially in-between and distinct from enslaved blacks and free whites. This division was nurtured by Louisiana's Spanish and French colonial rulers and then significantly reinvigorated by the migration of nearly 10,000 refugees from the Haitian Revolution, who fled their first refuge in eastern Cuba to settle in New Orleans in 1809. In the research discussed here I examine how these historical ties to the Caribbean continue to shape the way many in New Orleans understand their culture and describe their racial and ethnic identification. I argue that in order to understand its racial and ethnic present, New Orleans must be examined within the larger history and context of the Americas.
This research is based on three years of ethnographic research and thirtyseven in-depth interviews with genealogists who have Louisiana Creole ancestry that extends back to Saint-Domingue/Haiti. I have chosen to work with genealogists because genealogical research encourages participants to investigate the intersection between public histories and personal identities (see Hareven, 1978; Ball, 1998; Hall, 1998; Tyler, 2005). Because individuals with Creole ancestry are a cultural minority within the larger US community, remembering the ancestors either through informal recounting at family gatherings or through carefully documented research serves to keep alive a unique and distinctive history that is little known among those outside of (p.57) the group. Despite the importance of genealogical activity for many Creoles, however, there is no ethnographic work that directly explores the question of how this activity informs the maintenance of Creole identities.
Listening to the stories of these genealogists has also made it possible to examine how individuals incorporate regional histories and cultures into their understandings of who they are. It is especially important to understand this process within regions of the United States that have a significant historical relationship with other regions in the circum-Caribbean. Paying closer attention to the transnational history and character of many US regions may inform and potentially transform our public debates about what it means to be ‘American’. This public debate over national identity continues to be relevant and to generate contention as US citizens discuss issues like immigration policy, English-only language laws, reception of immigrants and other related questions. Genealogical research that crosses borders raises awareness among everyday people of the transnational social and cultural influences that have made the United States what it is today. During the course of this work it has become clear, for instance, that historical linkages to Saint-Domingue/Haiti have not been forgotten in Louisiana. Instead, these connections provide some of the cultural materials respondents use to make sense of who they are.
French, Spanish and Caribbean: The Many Roots of New Orleans
New Orleans is often seen as being ‘different’. This is as true today as it was in 1819 when Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited and wrote that everything ‘had an odd look’. He found it difficult ‘not to stare at [a] sight wholly new even to one who has traveled much in Europe and America’ (Johnson, 1995: 1). Today, New Orleans continues to stand out for its unique cultural landscape, and it is often called the northernmost point of the Caribbean. The city's history helps to account for this linkage in the public imagination of New Orleans with the Caribbean. As part of the Louisiana territory during its colonial era, New Orleans was alternately part of the French and Spanish colonial regimes. Its history is thus intimately tied to the histories of the Spanishand French-speaking Caribbean. This diverse colonial heritage has shaped understandings of race and ethnicity in ways that are unique compared to other parts of the United States. In order to understand why this is the case, we must consider the kinds of racial practices carried out under the French and the Spanish in colonial Louisiana. We will then contrast this with social and cultural transformations associated with race that occurred during the period of Americanization that followed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. (p.58) Finally, we will consider how this legacy continues to inform understandings of race and ethnicity in New Orleans.
Racial Mixture during the French Period, 1718–1763
Louisiana was a difficult place for the many settlers and residents who embarked upon life in the colony. During its early period it was quite poor, and compared to colonies like Saint-Domingue to the south it was considered to be a cultural backwater. Socially, white men found a significant lack of white sexual partners. As a result, they turned to African and Native American women, with whom they entered into either forced or consensual sexual relationships.
In some cases, the interracial relationships between white men and women of African descent were conducted within the framework of an informal institution called plaçage. In a plaçage relationship, the white man agreed to provide a certain level of economic support to the woman and the offspring that came from the union (for more on this practice, see Foner, 1970 and Martin, 2000). These were complex relationships that could be characterized on a continuum from coercion to consent. In some cases, there was more coercion than consent. In others, however, there was a mutual agreement between the man and the woman to enter into and sustain the relationship. Although the relationships could not be legalized because the law forbade mixed marriages, the system of plaçage became an accepted social institution in the colony.
In many cases, children born of interracial unions remained enslaved because their mother was enslaved; the condition of freedom or enslavement was inherited maternally. In other cases, however, the children born of such relationships were given their freedom by their white father. These children, especially the boys, might even have been sent to France for a formal education. This practice led to a small population of free people of colour who were often quite skilled, well educated and financially well-off. The overall population of free people of colour increased slowly under the French because even if a slave had the money to purchase his or her freedom the owner had the authority to refuse the sale. It was not until the Spanish period that the population of free people of colour increased significantly.
Racial Mixture during the Spanish Period, 1763–1803
The French ceded Louisiana to Spain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War. At the time of the legal transition of power, Spanish authorities were working hard to re-establish control over their (p.59) war-ravaged country. Consequently, the regime was slow to send leaders to the newly acquired territory. It was not until 1765 that the Spanish government sent governor Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre Guiral to the colony with orders to allow French laws and customs to stay in place. The inhabitants of Louisiana did not, however, respond well to Ulloa's rule. He was viewed as indecisive and unwilling to exert control. As a result, French planters and merchants rose up and banished Ulloa from the colony. In response, the Spanish finally established decisive rule over Louisiana by sending a new governor, Alejandro O'Reilly, along with 2,100 troops, to restore order.1
The system of plaçage between white men and women of African descent continued under Spanish control. To this system was added the Spanish practice of coartación, which significantly shaped the racial landscape in Louisiana. Under this practice, slaves had the legal right to purchase themselves if they could come up with their purchase price. If the master was amenable to the purchase, he could set the price and the slave would pay it. If the master was reluctant to allow the slave to purchase his or her freedom, then the courts could intervene and set what was considered to be a fair market price.
This contrasts greatly with the practice under the French. In the French system, a slave could ask to purchase himself or herself, but he or she could not use the courts to compel the owner to accept payment in return for freedom. This right of coartación made it much easier for slaves to purchase their own freedom and many took advantage of it. The exercise of coartación added to the size and strength of the population of free people of colour in Louisiana.
Race in Anglo-American Louisiana, 1803 and Beyond
While there were differences in the approaches the French and the Spanish took to regulating interracial relationships, the two regimes had more similarities than differences, especially in comparison to the changes imposed by the Anglo-Americans. The French and Spanish colonial regimes had in common the following: a continuum of racial categories; a relatively high tolerance for interracial relationships; a relatively high tolerance for people of colour in positions of wealth and power. These characteristics of the French and Spanish systems allowed for a certain fluidity in racial categories and identities. There was room – especially in Spanish Louisiana – for people of colour – both enslaved and free – to improve their social (p.60) status. This situation would begin to change with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent Americanization which took place across the territory.
The Anglo-Americans who took control of Louisiana were shocked by the cultural and racial practices they found once they got there. In New Orleans, for instance, they found what they considered to be lax supervision of slaves and a relaxed approach to religion. In his work on Congo Square, Jerah Johnson summarizes the perception of Anglo-American residents newly arrived to New Orleans in the early nineteenth century. He writes:
Benjamin Latrobe's reaction was typical. What he saw in the square prompted him to write a long and altogether disapproving entry in his journal […] on the Creole mode of Sunday observance. And he betrayed his amazement and apprehension at the sight of five or six hundred unsupervised slaves assembled for dancing when he added, in a tone of relief, ‘there was not the least disorder among the crowd, nor do I learn on enquiry, that these weekly meeting of negroes have ever produced any mischief.’ (Johnson, 1995: 36)
American visitors were also shocked and quite concerned to see free people of colour carrying arms freely in the city and interacting freely and intimately with slaves. As far as they were concerned, this was a situation ripe for rebellion and violence. In response to these ‘dangerous’ racial practices, the Anglo-Americans attempted to corral the lax and rowdy New Orleanians into racial and cultural categories with which they were more comfortable.
The efforts to Americanize Louisianians were very much resisted by each of the three major social groups. Free people of colour stood to lose their special intermediary status if the Anglo-American preference for a bifurcated racial structure were instituted in place of the more flexible tripartite system under which they had flourished. As far as Anglo-Americans were concerned, anyone with discernible African features or skin colouring – however moderate – was black and little better than those who were enslaved. White Louisianians also resisted adapting to the language, culture and ways of the mainly Protestant Anglo-Americans. They drew clear distinctions between ‘Creoles’ – who had been born in the colony before 1803 and ‘les Américains’ who poured into the territory following the Louisiana Purchase.2 Finally, the slaves native to Louisiana before the Purchase also had much at stake under the process of Americanization. They were at risk of losing their relative (p.61) freedom to move about on their own and to gather in places like Congo Square for marketing and recreation. Fortunately for these Creoles – black and white, enslaved and free – 1809 brought a development that would dramatically slow the process of Americanization.
The 1809 Migration of Saint-Domingue Refugees
In 1808, France invaded Spain in an aggression that was part of what is known as the Peninsular War. This was a struggle between France and the allied powers of Spain, Britain and Portugal for control over the Iberian Peninsula. These political troubles between France and Spain ricocheted across the Atlantic and ultimately impacted the Americanization process in New Orleans.
In order to understand why this is the case, we must go back to the year 1791 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which is known today of course as Haiti. In August 1791, a network of slaves organized an insurrection that began in the northern part of Saint-Domingue and made its way relentlessly across the entire colony. This was the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. Thirteen years later, on 1 January 1804, black leaders in the colony declared victory against the French and claimed their independence.
During the course of the thirteen-year revolution, thousands of whites and free people of colour fled Saint-Domingue and took their slaves with them. A good number of these refugees ended up on the neighbouring island of Cuba. There they did their best to reconstruct their lives until hostilities broke out between France and Spain in 1808. Once this occurred, the Spanish governors of Cuba looked upon the French-allied refugees in their midst with great suspicion. The Saint-Domingue refugees were required to renounce their ties to France or to leave Cuba. Many chose to flee the Spanish colony. As they considered where to go, Louisiana, with its French heritage, language and culture, was an inviting choice.
Nearly 10,000 Saint-Domingue refugees left Cuba and landed on the shores of New Orleans in 1809. In order to put the magnitude of this migration into context, it is important to know that the 1809 population of urban New Orleans before the refugees arrived was only about 10,000. The newcomers nearly doubled the population of the city. This in itself is extraordinary. The situation becomes even more interesting, however, when we consider how the demographic breakdown of the new arrivals shaped the racial and cultural landscape of the city.
Paul Lachance, who reports the figures in Table 1, explains that even though the total population of all of Orleans Parish was 17,000 before the refugees arrived, the population of urban New Orleans was only about (p.62) 10,000. This is where we draw the conclusion that the population of New Orleans was nearly doubled by the migration. Another important observation is that this migration also more than doubled the population of free people of colour. This is very significant because it provided strength in numbers for a group that felt itself vulnerable in the face of the rigid racial system the Americans were trying to impose. In fact, the migration did prove to be a huge setback to the project of Anglo-Americanization in Louisiana. The refugees brought with them French and Creole languages, cultures and mores and helped to re-infuse the area with racial and cultural practices that the Americans found to be abhorrent. Because of their sheer numbers, the process of Americanization slowed dramatically. Many scholars credit this migration with keeping Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, culturally distinctive long after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (see Dessens, 2007; also Brasseaux and Conrad, 1992).
Table 1. Post-1809 Saint-Domingue refugee impact in New Orleans
Free people of colour
Orleans Parish (1806)
Orleans Parish (1810)
Source: Lachance, 1992a: 248. Lachance got these numbers from the Mayor's Report, 18 January 1810, published in the Moniteur, 27 January 1810.
Although the process of Americanization did eventually prevail in many ways, the Americans were never completely successful in stamping out the intermediary status of free people of colour.3 Many of their descendants today identify themselves as Creoles of colour and the people I have been interviewing are very aware of their unique roots. They are aware of these roots partly because of their genealogical research, but also because of the stories passed down by family members who resisted the rigidities of (p.63) Jim Crow segregation by either passing into whiteness or retreating into their own Creole social circles and institutions, where they were able to live in dignity and maintain their distinctive cultural practices such as the Creole language and Catholic heritage. The following sections turn to what has been discovered during the course of this research.
Because Louisiana's regional history is so closely tied to the French-speaking Caribbean, the research has been focused on the population of Louisiana genealogists who have roots going back to colonial Saint-Domingue – an ideal population for studying the impact of regional history on racial and ethnic identities. The primary methods used have been participant observation and interviewing. Participant observation was carried out over three years, from August 2005 to the summer of 2008, with two genealogical groups: the Saint-Domingue Special Interest Group, which is mainly comprised of white Louisianians with Saint-Domingue ancestry, and LA Creole, which is a cultural and genealogical group devoted to Creoles of colour from Louisiana. I completed thirty-seven interviews.
The number of interviews was limited by several factors. The population of people from Louisiana who are actively undertaking genealogy and who know that they have ancestry going back to Saint-Domingue is relatively small in number and it is therefore somewhat challenging to find them. Although this specific population is relatively small, their experience speaks to the larger population of native Louisianians in that nearly everyone native to Louisiana is familiar with the term Creole and has some opinion of what it means in terms of race and ethnicity. It is also not uncommon in New Orleans for there to be black and white branches of a family that may or may not interact, depending on their approaches to the issue of race. Therefore, although it is difficult to find people who can actually document ties to the French Caribbean, the racial and cultural legacy of these ties is evident in the larger population of Louisiana. The number of interviews was also limited because of their labour intensive nature. Many of the recorded interviews were accompanied by a larger body of data that included the documentation of ancestral ties from Louisiana back to Saint-Domingue. While some interviewees had relatively little documentation, many others had numerous records located in archives across the city of New Orleans. For these respondents, the recorded interview was simply the top layer of a larger pyramid of data that had to be unearthed from the archives. The amount of work and data involved thus limited the target number of interviews for this study.
During the course of the interview respondents were asked to talk about their sense of racial and ethnic identification and how their genealogical research may have contributed to this. I found that many respondents had a connection to the idea of being ‘Creole’ – either they themselves identified as Creole or they discussed older family members who as recently as the twentieth century drew clear distinctions between Creoles and ‘Américains’.
Because the term is highly politicized and often misunderstood, it is important to enter this discussion of Creole identification with a working definition of ‘Creole’. Rather than trying to provide a substantive definition that would integrate all the ways ‘Creole’ can be used, I have developed a structural definition so that the content may differ depending on the person or group under consideration. From here on, Creole refers to an ethnic identification that allows a person to maintain a distinctive and sometimes oppositional relationship to the dominant Anglo-American culture and/or its norm of black/white racialization. This definition applies equally well to several different ways of being Creole that will be discussed below. The very endurance of Creole identification testifies to the fact that even after generations of Americanization the Anglo-Americans were never completely successful in stamping out an alternative ‘Creole’ identity that was culturally distinctive and racially more complex than the system of Anglo-America. Indeed, the descendants of Saint-Domingue/Haiti in Louisiana who were part of my study have developed a variety of what I call ‘Creole cultural scripts’ which help them to distinguish themselves from US Americans who do not have a Creole heritage. In the course of my interviews and ethnographic work I identified four kinds of Creole cultural scripts.
White interviewees tend to adopt one of the following scripts:
- Creole v. Américain
- Creole v. the black/white racial system
Interviewees of colour tend to adopt one of the following scripts:
- Creole v. African American
- Creole AND African American
These choices act as ‘cultural scripts’ because each of them provides a (p.65) certain way of thinking about and explaining to the self and others what it means to be Creole in the context of the overwhelmingly Anglo-American black/white racial system of the United States. In the sections below, we consider each cultural script by examining examples from the interviews that illustrate how individuals use their script to identify themselves racially and/or ethnically.
Creole v. Américain
The Creole v. Américain cultural script expresses the heart of the original struggle between the inhabitants of pre-Purchase Louisiana and the Anglo-Americans who came to take over the territory after 1803. J.E. is a good example of this form of Creole identification.4 His family has been in New Orleans for many generations. J.E. is a white, native Louisianian who was forty at the time of the interview. He is well educated and lives in an upper-middle-class New Orleans neighbourhood. J.E. is a direct descendant of Jean (James) Pitot, the first mayor of the incorporated city of New Orleans.5 It is noteworthy that although the city was officially American, its head was a French-speaking Creole.
J.E. recounts the story of his ancestor Pitot with great pride. It is clear, however, that he does not simply see this as a bit of interesting history. He understands himself and his family to be part of a long line of Creoles with a distinct history, culture and contribution to the city. When asked how he became interested in researching his family history as it relates to Saint-Domingue, here is how J.E. responded.
I'm the product of a mixed marriage. My father is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and my mother is a true Creole. I mean, both of her parents come from true French New Orleans and Louisiana families. So, I spent a (p.66) lot of time with my maternal grandparents growing up, and they […] had retired over to Bay St Louis, Mississippi and […] I always had the sense of the family from them. They were both very knowledgeable about […] their family history. And I always had a sense […] of particular Saint-Domingue relatives, James Pitot, for example. And a gentleman by the name of Garrigues de Fleur Jacques. They were just names I knew growing up and I heard stories about them. And one reason, obviously, James Pitot was probably at the forefront is because the house is down at Bayou Saint John, so he's a pretty visible guy.
In examining the language here, one thing that immediately stands out is J.E.'s reference to himself as being the product of a ‘mixed marriage’. Generally, in the twenty-first-century United States, we would tend to think of a mixed marriage as one that is racially mixed. J.E. is referring, however, to cultural mixture – a Catholic Creole married to an Anglo-American Protestant. This description of his parents' marriage as mixed indicates the sense of real difference between these two branches of his family.
The time spent with the maternal grandparents also clearly shaped his understanding of himself as Creole. The family's distinguished Creole history was also certainly a factor contributing to J.E.'s sense of being different from the dominant Anglo-American cultural tradition in the United States. He makes reference in the quotation above to ‘the house’ at Bayou St John. He is referring here to the Pitot House, which still stands on the Bayou and is a historic landmark that is open for public tours.6 This is the house in which James Pitot lived from 1810 to 1819. J.E. was thus able to grow up steeped in the family's oral tradition and the visible reminder of his family's early presence in New Orleans.
Another example of the Creole v. Américain cultural script comes from L.C., an older woman, who was eighty-six at the time of our interview. L.C. lives in a beautiful condominium with an expansive view of the Mississippi River. Sitting in her living room, we were surrounded by elegant paintings – portraits of distinguished ancestors. Like J.E., L.C. is also very knowledgeable about her family's history in New Orleans. She too grew up with oral family history related to the family's Creole roots. When asked how she became interested in family history research, she referred to the influence of her Tante D. and Tante Vaughn and she herself made note of the fact that she used the French word for aunt to refer to them both.
In the passage below, L.C. reflects on how she came to see that New (p.67) Orleans was culturally unique. During the time that she describes below, she was mother to three children and the family had just moved back to New Orleans after having been away for a while.
I was so thrilled I was coming back home, you know. When we got home, Tante D. and Tante Vaughn would still talk about ‘ces Américains’ – [those] Americans. That was just their mindset. […] And I guess my children were three, nine and twelve when we moved back home and [my son] came to me with eyes as big as saucers and he said, ‘Mama, aren't Tante D. and Tante Vaughn Americans?’ I said, ‘Yes, honey.’ ‘Well, why do they say, “ces Américains”?’ I said, ‘Honey, they've never been to France.’ [laughs] But that was the way they thought.
In this quotation, it is clear that the two aunts thought of themselves as fundamentally different from the Anglo-American culture they were surrounded by. From her discussion of these two women in other parts of the interview, it is clear that Tante D. and Tante Vaughn were beloved aunts with whom L.C. spent a good deal of time. In the quotation below, she reflects on how much she was shaped by the uniqueness of New Orleans history and culture without even knowing it.
Well, I didn't realize how different New Orleans was until I moved somewhere else because I was talking one day about the neutral ground. Somebody said, ‘What's the neutral ground?’ And I said, ‘You know, on an avenue, that division between the streets.’ ‘Oh, you mean a median.’ Well, I had never heard the word median, you know. It was the neutral ground. I thought that was the name of the thing. I didn't realize how unique that was here. And the same way with ‘banket’, which is a corruption of banquette. I played hopscotch on the ‘banket’. I didn't know there was another word for it. I thought the sidewalk was a ‘banket’. So, I had to go somewhere else to appreciate it.
The term ‘neutral ground’ is still used across the city of New Orleans to refer to what people in other places would call a ‘median’ (‘central reservation’ in British English). In the public memory, the term comes from the symbolic significance of the grassy area along Canal Street dividing the French Quarter from the area known as ‘Uptown’ – where the Americans lived. The animosity between the Creoles and the Americans was so great that from 1836 to 1852 there were three separate municipalities created to legally separate the cultural groups. The French were part of the first district in the French Quarter; the Americans were in the second district known as the Faubourg Saint Mary; and a third district was made up of a mix of French, Germans and people of mixed racial background in the Faubourg Marigny.
(p.68) L.C. absorbed many aspects of Creole cultural history and identity and at the time of the interview she described herself as ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Louisiana French’.7 Her family's oral tradition includes stories about ancestors fleeing Saint-Domingue during the revolution and her time with her aunts reinforced a sense of French cultural identity. For all these reasons, L.C. is another good example of the first cultural script, Creoles v. Américains.
In the following section, we consider the experience of white interviewees who adopt Creole identification in a very different way.
Creole v. The Black/White Racial System
While the respondents discussed in the previous section have a lifelong history of Creole identification, those discussed here came to see themselves as Creole relatively late in life. Respondents in this category consider themselves Creole partly for cultural reasons, but also because they feel that traditional ways of identifying as ‘white’ or ‘black’ in the U.S. do not make sense for them. The stories discussed below deal with the aftermath of racial passing that occurred one or two generations ago.
M.R. is in his forties and grew up in Minneapolis in a white family. When his father passed away a few years ago, however, he found some papers that pointed to an unknown past. As he looked through the papers, it became clear that his father had come from a mixed-race background that he never talked about. Here is how M.R. responded to a question about how he reacted to this new information:
Well, I was stunned initially. I didn't know at the time exactly what it meant – or where it was gonna lead. But I do remember feeling – I remember feeling, uhm, pride in discovering anything about my past, because my father never talked about his father. That was [something] that never came up in my family. And my father never really was raised by his father. So I never met my grandfather. So, to find out anything – I was very proud. But also I was stunned to learn that indeed I came from a Creole past in New Orleans, and that at least at that point I understood that my great great grandfather was mixed race. He was both black and white. He was (p.69) Creole and Afro-Creole. So, all the sudden, questions in my mind started bubbling about, well, what does that make me?
This is the kind of revelation that would take most white US Americans by surprise. Some would hide the papers away again and never mention it. M.R., however, had a very different reaction. When asked how he came to answer the question, ‘What does that make me?’, M.R. said,
Well, you know, I – racially – I'm white. So I appear to be white as the driven snow and I was raised white and my father was raised as white. But in understanding that my grandfather was listed on his birth certificate as colored, and his father as ‘c’, or colored […] I began to realize that – there – the world isn't just black and white, and that all of a sudden there was this middle ground, this Creole middle ground that had existed in Louisiana that I came out of.
It is important to note here that M.R. does not think of himself as simply bi- or multi-racial. What he does instead is to draw from Louisiana's unique racial and cultural history to find the tools to make sense of his background. There he finds a long tradition of Creoles who are racially mixed and who share a distinct cultural tradition that he has come to identify with.
Another respondent who falls into this category is P.S. She is in her sixties and grew up in Louisiana. She was raised as white, but found out just a few years ago that her family had passed as white. What is interesting in her case is that in other parts of the country P.S. would most likely be labelled a lightskinned black woman. In the context of Louisiana, however, she was able to live as white without that identification being overtly challenged. Below she talks about how she initially found out about her family's racial past.
We were at my aunt who died – at her funeral – and we were just talking about her, and then we realized that we really didn't know a whole lot about her. And we were very close. She was my godmother: I was very close to her. And so that's what, kind of. I said, ‘You know, we're going to have to look into this.’ […] So, that very night, because they had a wake – they were still at the funeral home doing the wakes like they did, before – and, uhm, so we just went over to my mom and my aunt who was sitting together, and we said, ‘You know, we don't really know a whole lot about …’ We called her nanan. ‘… my godmother.’ We said, ‘We don't know a whole lot about nanan.’ I said, uhm, ‘You know, what can you tell us about ya'll background?’ And, in unison, they both said, ‘Nothing. Nothing good ever came over looking into the past.’
Soon after the funeral, one of P.S.'s brothers went to the local library to (p.70) look up their grandfather on the census. He found that the man was listed as coloured. When P.S. heard about this, she told her brother that it must be a mistake. She then went to her mother to ask her about the census record designation. To her surprise, her mother refused to talk about it. At this point, she knew something was going on. P.S. and a younger brother travelled to Pointe Coupée Parish, where her grandfather had come from, and went to the courthouse to do some more family research. What they found out was that her grandfather's family had been in Pointe Coupée since the founding of the area. Their research confirmed the mixed race ancestry in the family. P.S. reacted as follows:
So we came back home and I called my daughter who was in school […] and she couldn't get enough. So she's the one who helped me in the beginning to do the research. […] My grandparents were both Creoles and my mother, uhm, is Creole, but my grandparents are the ones that must have made a decision that my mother attended white schools. So that says to me that it was my grandparents' decision.
Now, several years after finding out about her family's past, P.S. is actively involved in the Creole community in New Orleans. Even though she grew up as white, in every way P.S. feels at home identifying as Creole. In contrast to M.R., she does not describe herself as racially white. Instead, on her interview sheet, she describes herself as ‘Creole’ with no other accompanying description. Part of the reason for this may have to do with the fact that, while M.R. grew up in the mid-West, P.S. was raised in New Orleans with traditions that she now sees in retrospect as Creole traditions. While they have very different life experiences, respondents M.R. and P.S. have in common their borrowing from cultural traditions and racial/ethnic categories unique to Louisiana. Next we consider the experience of people of African descent who identify themselves as distinct from non-Creole African Americans.
Creole v. African American
There is a long history of tension and misunderstanding between Creoles of colour in Louisiana and non-Creole African Americans. The latter often accuse the former of wanting to distance themselves from the black community, of wanting to be ‘better’ than black Americans. On the other side, many Creoles of colour react with frustration to these claims. They assert that there are real cultural differences between Creoles and African Americans and that it is not helpful or fair for them simply to be lumped into the larger African American category.
The area where I grew up, it was 95 per cent Creole. The New Orleans neighborhoods were not segregated then. They didn't have that many black people in the city like they have now. See, nothing was segregated. You had blacks, you had Creoles and you had white. It was actually a three-class system. I mean, you've heard that before. And where I was it was 90 per cent Creole, and we had – I can honestly tell you that the block that I grew up in, they had two white families and one black family – like this was in this whole street – which you know where AP Tureaud is? OK, well it was London Avenue at the time, and we had one black family in our block, that was it. Everybody else was Creole and we had two or three white families. That was our world. This was all we knew and there was a lot of prejudice, oh Lord. […] I was born in 1940, so we are talking all the way through the fifties. And then people started to move, but mainly the Creoles because they were tired of the segregation – ended up being in the middle. The thing came up with the black power. And, it's like, I don't really fit in with that and yet you did not fit on the white side. We had our own thing. We had our own schools, our own shows, our own – my mother says her mother used to tell her all the time because my grandfather was more brown skinned so he couldn't pass, but my mother, my grandmother and better than half of the thirteen children, but she said every time they left the house, ‘Do not sit in front of that screen on the bus because I don't ever want you to be on the street and see your daddy and can't say hello to him.’
The first thing we note here is that V.F. makes a clear reference to a ‘threeclass’ system. Although the term ‘class’ may not be the best description, it is clear that there are three distinct social groups that vary by race and/or culture. When she talks about black people, she does so in a way that shows she does not consider herself to be part of that group.
She also talks about Creoles being ‘in the middle’ in the sense that they did not quite fit with either blacks or whites. Creoles had, and to this day in New Orleans continue to have, schools and churches that are largely composed of other Creoles. In contrast to the judgements many non-Creole African Americans make of Creoles, however, V.F.'s discussion of her father and her mother's admonition seems to indicate that V.F. was taught not to be ashamed of people who were identifiably black. When V.F.'s mother tells her not to sit ‘in front of that screen’, she is making reference to the segregated transportation system which compelled blacks to sit in the back of buses or streetcars. In this family there was no attempt to pass for white. Indeed, even (p.72) those who could pass for white were counselled not to, so that they could always acknowledge darker-skinned family members.
Amelie Durant also grew up in a solidly Creole cultural context during the period of segregation.8 She was raised in New Orleans and was sixty-six at the time of the interview. In the passage below she explains how Creoles of colour distinguished between Creole and non-Creole people of African descent. The person she is referring to in the beginning of the excerpt is the man who became her husband.
I remember my aunt asking me if he cooked American or Creole and that's the distinction they made if they talked about other black people […] that generation the way they distinguished verbally or descriptively, the way they distinguished Creole of colour from other coloured people was either they were American or they were Creole. […] I don't think we ever thought of ourselves as African American.
Here again, as with V.F., there is a clear distinction between Creoles and non-Creole African Americans. It is interesting to note that the deciding factor in this case is style of cooking. It is also significant that the labels chosen to distinguish the two groups mirrors the labels used in the early nineteenth century – Creoles v. Américains. The distinction as Amelie describes it was not simply between Creoles and ‘blacks’ but rather Creoles and ‘Americans’.
Although Amelie is clear about not identifying as African American, it is even more interesting to hear what she says just after this statement about how she identifies and why she does so. She explains,
I told [my friend] that more and more I consider myself more Caribbean than anything. If I am going to put the African, Afro-Caribbean [… ] I really don't think of myself as American. I think it's the American part that even now I realized I think we have never considered ourselves American for some reason.
When encouraged to say more about why this is the case, Amelie says,
It's the French and Spanish. We grew up calling ourselves French and Spanish. If somebody didn't know all of our background they would assume that we were what's considered traditional Creoles, I guess. I feel this strong need, and maybe it's holding on to my family, especially since they are gone physically, it's how I can hold on to them spiritually, (p.73) mentally. It's my connection to my heritage, to my background, to hold on to them. I just don't identify with the rest of the country. Especially when you think of there was Louisiana, there was south Louisiana and New Orleans developing, all of these things happening, and then there was the rest of the country parallel. And so much of what is considered American, starting with the Independence, the thirteen states. That to me is foreign. And Louisiana is, really. I feel more of a connection to France, to the French Revolution than to this revolution. I know it's ridiculous. It's a very emotional thing.
In this response, Amelie expresses something in common with J.E. and L.C. from the section on ‘Creoles v. Américains’, above. The idea of being ‘American’ is what seems foreign to her. This cultural distinction is the reason that it is really not sufficient to think of Amelie and others like her as being bi- or multi-racial. There is much more than race or colour at issue here. The distinct regional history of Louisiana, with its strong ties to the French, the Spanish and the Caribbean, has shaped its culture in a way that has had lasting effects on its people and their ways of identifying. In the final section on the interviewees we take a look at the experience of those who identify as both African American and Creole.
Creole and African American
The respondents discussed here firmly identify as Creole, but also see themselves as being African American. The experience of L.R. helps us to understand why many of them have come to this way of thinking.
Now I'm very comfortable with the label ‘Creole’. In the 60s, I was not. I fought against it. I thought it meant a pride in being light skinned and privileged because it had no historical connection. I had no source – no academic source – to clearly define what it meant in cultural terms. […] My mom had a sixth grade education; my dad got his GED from high school. And they were taught that they were Creole and that they were separate and they tended to live apart. They tended to co-marry, co-mingle or intermarry with others of that culture. And so I didn't like the prejudice that I saw. […] So I was bitter and very confused.
As she looked at the social and racial landscape of the 1960s, L.R. just could not reconcile the prejudice she saw among Creoles of colour with her own sense of what was right. The experience she describes, the way her family reacted to non-Creole blacks, reflects exactly the kinds of criticisms many African-Americans in New Orleans have of Creoles. As L.R. explains here, (p.74) there are indeed some Creoles who see themselves not only as different but as better than non-Creole African Americans. There are many others, however, who do not make this kind of judgement.
Below, L.R. describes how she reacted to the way she was raised.
I believed that I had to show my black ethnicity through my dress and my hair and that's when I stopped using permanents and straightening my hair and began to use […] wore an afro […] all through graduate school. So I think I went around the block to get across the street. Now I'm comfortable.
Now, nearly fifty years later, L.R. identifies with both groups. On her interview sheet she wrote that she identifies as African American, with no other racial or ethnic descriptor included. Throughout the interview, however, she makes clear that she also sees herself as Creole.
There are many others as well who see themselves as equally African American and Creole. I encountered several of them in 2004, during the early part of the fieldwork for this project, when I monitored an email discussion group called the Cajun/Creole List. Much of the conversation on that list dealt with the issue of how to reconcile being ‘black’ and ‘Creole’.9 Many writers expressed their identification with both groups.
Outside of Louisiana, native-born blacks of non-immigrant parents generally have one choice in how to identify. Because they cannot point to their families having recently come from another country they are automatically categorized as African American in the Anglo-American cultural tradition. This last cultural script allows Creoles in this group to choose a more nuanced cultural and ethnic identity, one that draws on the multiple cultural and linguistic threads that have helped to create the United States.
The stories we have examined here make it clear that we must pay closer attention to regional history when focusing on issues of race and identification in the United States. Although there is certainly a dominant black/ (p.75) white framework for thinking about and organizing race in the United States, the reality is that the racial and ethnic landscapes in many regions of the United States have been shaped by social and cultural processes that are much more complicated. We have seen here how past migrations from Saint-Domingue/Haiti to Louisiana significantly slowed the process of Anglo-Americanization. The endurance of various forms of Creole identification as reviewed in the sections above testify to the ongoing resistance a subgroup of Louisianians have to the dominant black/white system of racial classification. But Louisiana is not the only place where unique regional histories have helped to shape understandings of race and ethnicity that differ from the dominant US model. We would also find the importance of regional history when looking at the history of migrations and cultural exchanges between South Florida and the Caribbean, between other parts of the Gulf South and the Caribbean, and between parts of the southwest and Mexico. The intricate ways these southern regions have been tied to different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean call for an expanded understanding of what it means to be ‘American’ in the United States.
Ball, E. 1998. Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
Brasseaux, Carl A., and Glenn R. Conrad (eds). 1992. The Road to Louisiana: The Saint-Domingue Refugees, 1792–1809. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies.
Dessens, Nathalie. 2007. From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Dominguez, Virginia R. 1986. White By Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Foner, Laura. 1970. ‘The Free People of Color in Louisiana and St Domingue: A Comparative Portrait of Two Three-caste Slave Societies’. Journal of Social History 3.4: 406–30.
Hall, J. D. 1998. ‘“You Must Remember This”: Autobiography as Social Critique’. Journal of American History 85.2: 439–65.
Hangar, Kimberley S. 1997. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Hareven, T. K. 1978. ‘The Search for Generational Memory: Tribal Rites in Industrial Society’. Daedalus 107.4: 137–49.
Haskins, James. 1975. The Creoles of Color of New Orleans. With drawings by Don Miller. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
Hirsch, Arnold R., and Joseph Logsdon (eds). 1992. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Samuel Wilson, Jr. Publications Fund of the Louisiana Landmarks Society. Originally published (1991) as ‘New Orleans's Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation’. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 32.2: 117–57.
Lachance, Paul F. 1992a. ‘The 1809 Immigration of Saint-Domingue Refugees to New Orleans: Reception, Integration, and Impact’. In Carl A. Brasseaux and Glenn R. Conrad (eds). 1992. The Road to Louisiana: The Saint-Domingue Refugees, 1792–1809. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies: 245–84.
—. 1992b. ‘The Foreign French’. In Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon (eds), Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press: 101–30.
Martin, Joan. 2000. ‘Plaçage and the Louisiana gens de couleur libres: How Race and Sex Defined the Lifestyles of Free Women of Color’. In Sybil Kein (ed.), Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press.
Pitot, Henry Clement. 1968. James Pitot: A Documentary Study. New Orleans, LA: Bacage.
Thompson, Shirley E. 2009. Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tregle Jr., Joseph G. ‘Creoles and Americans’. In Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon (eds), Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press: 131–85.
Tyler, K. 2005. The Genealogical Imagination: The Inheritance of Interracial Identities. Sociological Review 53.3: 476–94.
(3) See Thompson, 2009 for a useful historical account of the pressures of Americanization on Creoles of colour. See Hirsch and Logsdon, 1992 for several essays that discuss various aspects of the process of Americanization in New Orleans. See Dominguez, 1986 for an account of how contemporary Creole identities looked in the 1970s.
(4) When a respondent is referred to by two initials, those are the true initials corresponding to the real names of the respondent. Although all respondents whose initials are given consented to have their full true names used, the initials are used here to provide some measure of privacy.
(5) While the city of New Orleans had existed for nearly 100 years, until its official incorporation on 17 February 1805 it was just one part of a large colonial empire under the French or the Spanish. The incorporation provided the city with a measure of independence and a charter akin to a state operating according to a constitution. It is thus significant that a French-speaking immigrant became the first mayor of the incorporated Anglo-American city of New Orleans. For more, see Pitot, 1968 and the 200th anniversary exhibit of the New Orleans Public Library, available at 〈http://nutrias.org/exhibits/charter/charter.htm〉.
(7) Whenever reference is made to how an interviewee identified himself or herself on the interview form, it is important to know that these were purely self-identifications. There were no predetermined racial or ethnic categories to choose from on the interview form. The question read: ‘With what racial and/or ethnic groups do you identify?’ Respondents filled this in with whatever they found to be appropriate for themselves.
(8) This respondent did not consent to the use of her true name. For this reason, a pseudonym has been chosen and used here.
(9) This work was part of preliminary field work that helped me to gain access to some of the diverse people and points of view in the Louisiana Creole community. I sent out a survey to which 23 people responded. Although the total number of responses was low, there was some interesting variety in responses to the question of how people identified themselves. As with the current project, people were allowed to self-identify. Out of the 23 who sent back a survey, 7 identified as both black and Creole, 5 as black, and only 1 as Creole with no other accompanying descriptor.