Thursday, April 15, 2010

Trabajo Voluntario: Creoles, Cajuns, Treme, and Guest Blogging at The Havana Note

Readers of El Yuma might want to know that for the next week or so I will be guest blogging over at The Havana Note.

I'll still be posting the last installment or two on my experiences doing trabajo voluntario down in New Orleans, with a special focus on one of the neighborhoods where we worked, Treme, and the new HBO series of the same name that premiered last Sunday.

Now, however, I will begin to answer the question about the difference between Creoles and Cajuns by discussing what Tulane geographer Richard Campanella calls "a complex, fluid, and controversial identity, whose definition varies on the axes of time, place, context, and perspective": CREOLE

This quote is from Campanella's most recent and indispensible book on all things New Orleans Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (2008, Center for Louisiana Studies).  (See here, here, and here for more on the book).  Of the book's 68 semi-independent chapters, two in particular provide what is perhaps the most concise and comprehensive discussion of the evolution of this peculiar, place-based (and sometime race-based and occasionally racist and elitist) ethnicity: "Creolism and Place: The convoluted and controversial history of New Orleans' home-grown ethnicity" and "Nativity as Ethnicity in New Orleans: The significance of being - and not being - from New Orleans."

As what Campanella calls "the only American city that can reasonably claim to have rendered its own ethnicity," New Orleans has been home to people who identify themselves as Creoles since early in the 18th century when it was ruled and populated in turn by the French (and their slaves) and the Spanish (and their slaves).  Since then, the word and identity Creole has evolved through what I will identify as ten phases as described by Campanella.

1. Just as in colonial Latin America (including Cuba), Creole was the French and English translation of Criollo and was used in New Orleans to "describe those of Old World parents born upon New World soils."  Old Worlders were called peninsulares and ran the government, military, and clergy in colonial Latin America, while subsequent generations were criollos and often treated as second class citizens.  Thus, Creoles were defined in opposition to (and were initially seen as inferior to) those born in France or Spain.  This is similar to what many of my immigrant and children-of-immigrant students call "2nd generation" - or as Chinese New Yorkers often argue whether it's better to be a CBA or an ABC - that is, a Chinese-born American (a 1st gen who keeps the language and traditions but is often seen by ABCs as a bumpkin), and an American-born Chinese (a 2nd gen who is hip, modern, and upwardly mobile but is frequently seen by CBAs as hollow, fake, lazy, and disrespectful of sacred traditions and the all-important elders).

2. Later, after Louisiana became part of the U.S. and the Anglos began to arrive in New Orleans, the term Creole became more important in distinguishing the "ancient Louisianians" from the "modern Louisianians" - that is, the Franco/Hispano, Catholic Creole "natives" from the Anglo, Protestant Americans.  In this iteration, Creole became a synonym for native and applied equally to whites, blacks, and those of mixed racial heritage - especially the gens de couleur libre (free people of color).

3. This distinction between Creoles and Americans (not yet between white and black) actually politically fractured the city of New Orleans into three separate municipalities during the 19th century until the Americans gradually won the day both politically and economically. In turn, as the Americans took over they slowly began to replace the Creole/Caribbean/Latin American notion that there were racial gradients between black and white with a strict sense of racial separation a la the infamous "one drop" rule.

4. As a result, white Creoles attempted to re-define the Creole identity as strictly and exclusively one for people of pure French or Spanish blood.  This did much to threaten the earlier notion of what Campanella refers to as "pan-racial creolism" - that is, an understanding "in which peoples of different racial ancestries openly shared a common nativity-based ethnicity."

Homer Plessy's grave stone located in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the Faubourg Treme 
not far from the graves of Marie "Voodoo Queen" Laveau and
Ernest "Dutch" Morial (see below), two other famous New Orleans Creoles.

Keith Plessy, right and Phoebe Ferguson stand on the railroad tracks
at the corner of Royal and Press Streets where on June 7, 1892,
Homer Plessy was arrested after boarding a train
designated for whites only (see here for full 2009 article).

5. The "Americanization" of New Orleans' racial categories, identities, and social codes eventually led to the infamous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson where the light-skinned Catholic Creole of color from Faubourg Treme, Homer Plessy, was ejected from a street car reserved for "whites" - yes that's a picture of Plessy above!

6. Even though many white Creoles of the city had previously tried to take ownership of the ethnic identity with a claim of pure French or Spanish blood, at the turn of the century they began to gradually melt into the white American population of New Orleans and stop identifying as Creoles, "removing all potential doubt of their whiteness by severing ties with the equally genuine Creoles of black and mixed-race backgrounds," according to Campanella.  This distancing in turn led popular usage of the term Creole to indicate a person who was Franco-African-American ("a local person of mixed racial ancestry, usually Catholic, often with a French surname, often well-established in business and society, and always with deep roots in the city's Francophone history") as opposed to the city's sizable non-Creole African-American population. 

A good example of a classic New Orleans Creole from this era is the jazz man Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, Morton later Anglicized his stepfather's surname Mouton and took it as his own).  Morton, the Creole, can be contrasted with Louis Armstrong, the African-American grandson of slaves (both pictured below).

7. During the first decades of the 20th century up through the Civil Rights Movement New Orleans Creoles suffered the dual blows of out migration from their most traditional and concentrated neighborhoods to the expanding New Orleans suburbs (especially New Orleans East) and far away from Louisiana to places like Los Angeles and New York.  Anatole Broyard, the former New York Times book critic and the subject of the recent memoir, One Drop, written posthumously by his daughter Bliss Broyard, was one of these Creoles, born in the French Quarter but taken as a child by his parents to grow up in New York City.  In fact, he learned to "pass" from them since they would have been shut out of many jobs in Brooklyn had they "revealed" their Creole (translated as Black in New York) ancestry/ethnicity.  (See here for an essay from the New Yorker magazine by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the "Passing of Anatole Broyard.")

The criticism Broyard's passing has been met with since his death indicates another obstacle that served to neutralize the Creole identity.  Attacked as inferior for their common black "blood," the Black pride movement stressed unity and common cause thus viewing the notion of a separate Creolism (as a heritage, race, ethnicity, or identity) as potentially divisive and elitist.  In fact, historically New Orleans Creoles of color had often lorded their lighter skin and higher economic, social, and educational levels over their darker, less sophisticated brethren and so came in for criticism at this time.  Some departed New Orleans, others "passed" for white, while still others embraced their "blackness" in solidarity with other African-Americans.  All three of these choices for New Orleans' Creoles are illustrated in One Drop.  

8. Partly as a result of the success of the Civil Rights struggles of Black unity and as a result of the precipitous white flight from central New Orleans, 1977 saw the election of New Orleans' first black mayor.  Significantly, this "black" mayor was none other than Ernest "Dutch" Morial, whom Campanella describes as "a Creole of color who could easily pass for white."

Morial is pictured with his two young sons above and individually to the right.  Instead of dividing the city's Black community, Morial stressed the political unity of all Blacks, Creole or not, and had a huge following that began a powerful political dynasty - his son Marc (pictured below) served as mayor of the city in the 1990s and is now the president of the Urban League.
9. Campanella indicates that by the 1980s Creoles as a self-conscious ethnicity with a sense of place (in terms of neighborhood) had largely disappeared even if social, economic, political, and some residential patterns in the city still reflect the group's presence (if not so much its influence).  Campanella also indicates that there has been a fledging effort to revive the ethnicity and its traditions in the wake of the Cajun ethnic boom (more on that later).  However, the "Creole" of today has been more of a success as a tourist attraction than as an authentic ethnic community or movement.

10. Tragically, Campanella indicates that Hurricane Katrina dealt another severe blow to New Orleans' Creole population especially since it was a direct attack on the thing that had been the original and lasting basis for Creole identity - nativity, or a place to call home.  He ends his essay with the words, "Time will tell if Creole ethnicity, borne of a sense of importance attached to being from here, can survive being elsewhere." 

Still, many ethnic groups have reconstituted themselves as diasporas after being displaced from their original "homeland" - take the Jewish, Chinese, Cuban, African, or even Cajun diasporas as examples.  But the question is a good one, can Creoles still be Creoles if they do not live in New Orleans, or, better yet, if the city they once knew or their particular neighborhood exists only as a memory?


  1. This is great but it seems like you were not done. Where is the rest of it?

  2. Shannon, Thanx for your feedback. You are correct - I still have not written the second part about Cajuns. Perhaps I will get to it in the summer. I still have a post to put up on Treme (both the real one and the fictional HBO one). Then, I will try to blog on all things Cajun - as far as I know them. Can you help me out?

    El Yuma

  3. Hello There,
    I just wanted to see if you were currently interested in additional guest bloggers for your blog site.
    I see that you've accepted some guest posters in the past - are there any specific guidelines you need me to follow while making submissions?
    If you're open to submissions, whom would I need to send them to?
    I'm eager to send some contributions to your blog and think that I can cover some interesting topics.
    Thanks for your time,

  4. I'm open to guest bloggers. Write me an e-mail at and we can talk.