By Dr. Angel Adams Parham
Clarion Herald Contributing writer
“What exactly is Creole?”
This is one of the most common questions I receive when people hear that I do research related to Creoles in New Orleans. Depending on how one approaches the question, the answer is either quite simple or very complex.
At the most basic level, “creole” refers to being born in, or of, the Americas. In this sense, the word was applied not only to people but also to livestock or produce raised in the Americas.
Consider, for instance, the title of an 1871 sketch entitled, “A Bit of Creole Market Garden, or Gathering Gumbo,” by Alfred Rudolph Waud, which portrays two figures in a garden, baskets in hand with the river flowing behind them (Alfred R. Waud Collection, Historic New Orleans Collection). This meaning of creole continues to be present today in the city’s annual Creole Tomato Festival.
Distinction among slaves
The term was also used to distinguish “creole slaves” – enslaved persons of African descent born in the Americas – from “bossales,” the enslaved who were born in Africa and forcibly transported to the Americas. Both kinds of enslaved persons brought particular kinds of value: those born in Africa were targeted because of specific kinds of knowledge, for instance, a knowledge of growing rice; while creole slaves were often prized because they knew the local language and culture and were expected, in the minds of their owners, to be more docile.
“Creole” was also an identifier attached to free persons – both white and of color. Again, in each case, the focus was having been born in the Americas. In pre-Purchase Louisiana, it was well understood that persons could be Creole, regardless of their color.
The situation began to change, however, once Anglo-Americans bought and began to govern the territory.
Here, too, is where the answer to the question: “What exactly is Creole?” becomes more complex.
Different cultural practices
In early 19th century New Orleans, while Anglo-Americans were officially in charge, Creoles who had come of age in French- or Spanish-controlled Louisiana continued to exercise major social and cultural influence. Creoles had distinctive social and cultural practices that differed from those of Americans.
It is helpful to divide the distinctive aspects of Creole social life into “ethnic-cultural” and “racial-structural” dimensions. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an American, captured Creoles’ “ethnic-cultural” distinctiveness in his 1819 diary, “Impressions Respecting New Orleans, Diary and Sketches, 1818-1820”New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.
He observed that Creoles were given to feasting and celebrating, even on the Sabbath, and he was alarmed to find that white Creoles allowed enslaved persons to gather unaccompanied in Congo Square to engage in marketing while also carrying on their African music and dance traditions.
It was, in fact, this Creole willingness to allow African cultural practices to flourish that gave New Orleans its unique music and dance tradition distinct from what exists in the rest of the United States. For Anglo-Americans, these French-speaking Catholic Creoles had an extraordinary and, in many ways, unfathomable way of doing things.
Distinctions still unclear
Distinctions between Creole and American ways of living have persisted into the present-day and came through in the interviews I did in preparation for my book “American Routes.” One older woman of color illustrated this distinction when describing her husband:
“He said his grandparents were French-speaking and his father could understand French, but they didn’t look Creole. 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.”
Another respondent, a white woman, remarks on the French and Catholic dimensions of Creole identity in contrast to being American. When asked if being Catholic was central to Creole identity for her, she responded:
“I think it is because the French and the Spanish were Catholic. It was the Americans who moved from the more northern parts of the United States southward who brought Protestantism, and Baptists snuck in there somewhere. But the Catholic Church was central to the life in New Orleans, education. So yeah, I do.”
Rearing played a role
Later in the same interview, when asked about whether or not she raised her children to identify as Creole, she explains:
“Definitely. My daughter has an ear for languages. So, from a young age, I taught her French, because my sister lives in France and my brother-in-law doesn’t speak English. So, I wanted her to feel comfortable when they came around. The school she’s been in had taught Spanish, though, and at St. Joseph she’s taking Latin. So, she has always known that she is French Creole.
“And when they were in sixth grade at the Catholic school here, there’s a project of doing your family tree. And so, of course, you had multitudes of stuff on the French part of the family and going through all of that, so (she) knew. So, here’s the documentation that I am French Creole.”
Another interviewee, a white man whose ancestors were among the Saint-Domingue émigrés who fled the Haitian Revolution and ended up in New Orleans in the first years of the 19th century, also continues to strongly identify as Creole and to pass this identification down to his children.
When asked about the continued influence of the many French, Catholic Saint-Domingue émigrés who nearly doubled the population of New Orleans by 1809, he explained:
“I think there’s still quite a lot of influence. This may be affected by the fact that I’m a Creole, I consider myself a Creole. I’m Roman Catholic and I’m French, and I named my daughter French names. So, I think if you look at that, plus how I ate growing up, it was a very Creole diet, beans and rice and shrimp and seafood and gumbos. Cuisine and religion to me are the very last strongholds of a culture. When you arrive in a new world, these are the last things that die. … My grandmother who is alive today – she’s 92 years old – she grew up in a household here in New Orleans where it was considered impolite not to speak French at the dinner table. There were always relatives there who felt much more comfortable speaking French than English. My great grandmother grew up in the French Quarter. … Her prayer books (were) in French; her cuisine was French or Creole.”
While these interview excerpts express the ethnic-cultural dimension of Creole identity, it was the racial-structural differences that confused and concerned Anglo-Americans and led to generations of racially inflected controversy over what it means to be Creole. Although both Creoles and Americans engaged in intimate relationships across racial lines, Creoles – both those born in Louisiana, and those originally born in Saint-Domingue who emigrated to New Orleans following the revolution in Haiti – were more willing to acknowledge the children who resulted from these unions and to support their well-being and education.
It was not unusual, for instance, for Creoles of color to choose white persons as godfathers and to have this recorded in the records of the Catholic church. Quite often, the child of color was related in some way to the white godparent. Americans, on the other hand, were much less comfortable with publicly recognizing mixed-race offspring and more inclined to hide or deny paternity.
Because of these different approaches to mixed-race relationships, Americans generally assumed that all Creoles were mixed race. It was difficult, in the Anglo-American imagination, to embrace the dual reality that it was possible to both recognize mixed-race offspring and be white.
The following interview excerpts illustrate how many white Louisianans with Creole heritage continue to labor under this American misunderstanding. One young woman describes her experience as follows:
“I’d go back to Cane River and I’m looking for Creole speakers up there because I had been working with the Creole group here, Les Creoles du Pointe Coupée, and I wanted to hear their Creole French. I wanted to see what they spoke like, did they say this for that or what did they say. And I couldn’t find a single Creole speaker, but everybody that I went up to and told I was Creole understood that I was mixed race. And I wasn’t trying to say that. I was trying to say that I was Creole, my family is Creole, we’re French and I didn’t realize that other people had that other association with it until I was confronted with it. … I remember (one man), and I talked to him for a long time and he said, ‘Wow, you’re really fair.’ And he said something about my hair or something and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m white Creole.’ He just looked at me funny.”
This is one example among many where a white person of Louisiana Creole heritage is questioned for considering herself to be Creole. This is a situation where the assumption is that those who are ethnically and culturally Creole must also be mixed race. The historical record indicates, however, that the ethnic-cultural and racial-structural dimensions of Creole identity are related, though separate dimensions of the Creole experience in Louisiana.
White and black Creoles
Another white respondent, a middle-aged woman, described her experience in the 1970s learning that there were both white and black Creoles:
“When I got to St. Joseph, it was a small school. I want to say it was maybe a hundred in my freshman class. By the time I graduated it was maybe 1971. … What I started to learn at that point, was the other interpretations of Creole. St. Joseph Academy in New Orleans was one of the early schools to integrate in the 1960s. … I heard my mother say something about ‘The Creoles.’ And it was in a different context. … It was in a context of she said those are good Creole families. I didn’t know what they were talking about. That’s when I started to learn about the African definition of it. … I just remember being curious … You mean there’s something else to this? More of a confusion than anything else.”
Her confusion came from assuming in the late ’60s and early ’70s that her white Creole world was the only Creole world. The process of integration at St. Joseph’s, however, broadened her understanding. A generation later, her daughter went through her own rite of passage as a white Louisianan with Creole heritage.
“(My daughter) has always known that she is French Creole. … At eighth grade, here’s some substitute teacher in some discussion – I have no idea what – and she says, ‘Well, I’m Creole.’ And the teacher says, ‘Oh, no, honey I don’t think so.’ Now it was a white teacher, but her interpretation was that Creole was the African descent. … She was a polite kid. She kept her mouth shut. She really wanted to say, ‘No lady, there’s more definitions than that,’ but … she told me about it when she got home.”
Today, in 2017 and on the eve of the Tricentennial of New Orleans, there is still considerable confusion over how to answer the question: “What exactly is Creole?”
What I hope is clear from this brief exploration is that being Creole involves multiple dimensions.
On the one hand, being Creole within the context of Louisiana means being descended from and shaped by Creole ancestors and cultural practices going back to 18th-century French- and Spanish-controlled Louisiana. These traditional cultural practices include a love of the French language, French naming traditions and Catholic faith.
On the other hand, being Creole in New Orleans also means being heir to an historical approach to race that allowed many mixed-race children to be publicly acknowledged as part of the extended family.
These are historical practices that continue to shape the beauty and complexity of Creole identity and that continue to interest and intrigue many who attempt to understand New Orleans’ past and present.
Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”
Dr. Angel Adams Parham is an associate professor of sociology at Loyola University New Orleans. She is the author of “American Routes: Racial Palimpsests and the Transformation of Race” now available at global.oup.com under academic/product tabs.