Identity and Race in the Bayou Country

Louisiana is what many have come to refer to as the northern-most point of Latin America, where créolité, a Latin-based people, culture and consciousness, emerged early in the 1700s. From its earliest stages, the international melting pot of cultures that came to simmer along Louisiana’s bayous linked Louisiana Creoles with three continents in a global market economy including the Indian Ocean.

Bayou Country

Bayou Country

When the French crown ceded Louisiana to the Company of the Indies in 1717, Nantes (France), Gorée (Senegal), Port-Louis (Mauritius), Saint- Denis (La Réunion) and New Orleans, became intimately related. For instance, between 1721 and 1745, 3,818 slaves were transported from Senegambia to Louisiana with roughly equal numbers destined for the Mascareigne Islands. In addition, Bretons, Picards and Normands came to represent the largest Francophone elements in early French Louisiana and in the French Indian Ocean islands. Not surprisingly, in Louisiana and in the Mascareignes, virtually the same Creole language developed, the first lengthy written examples of which date back to 1745 in Mauritius and 1748 in Louisiana.

As early as 1710, native-born Louisianians of Latin culture self-identified as Créole.

As early as 1710, native-born Louisianians of Latin culture self-identified as Créole. Slave and free, tan, brown, yellow and fair have used Creole to differentiate themselves from Anglophones in North America. Where Spanish, Creole, and French languages were spoken and Catholicism practiced in Colonial Louisiana, people were sure to define themselves as Creole. This distinction between Américain and Créole became more pronounced after 1812 when Louisiana officially became an American state, and continued after the Civil War when Anglophone America’s binary racial system came to play a more immediate role in the socioeconomic destiny of Louisianians.

Latin solidarity in pre-war Louisiana quickly morphed into debates over who was legitimately white and who was black during Reconstruction (1868-1888). The reconstructed constitution of Louisiana was the most radically executed in the history of nation, extending full citizenship to newly freed slaves, racially desegregating all educational institutions and public venues, and permitting persons formerly barred from marriage to marry. Bitter resentment quickly mounted among Southerners desirous of a return to the good old of days of the Confederacy when citizenship, equal protection and mobility were primarily granted to whites.

From 1891 to 1954, a series of state statutes and city ordinances, known as “Jim Crow” laws, were passed and used as instruments to disfranchise and economically handicap non-whites thus creating a more hardened racial caste system. How ever, as sectarianism and cultural chasms persisted in Louisiana between Anglophones and Latinos, white and non-white, degrees of social fluidity were still common in Creole hearths. As one Jesuit Priest observed in 1957, as far as Americans were concerned, Catholic Creoles were viewed as “lawbreakers” for their liberal views on race.

The combination of Creole parochialism, Francophone Catholic clergymen and rejection of “American” values contributed to the retention of French and Creole languages and Latin identity well into the 20th century–but with a twist. Today, unlike other Creoles, Louisiana Creoles do not identify as Creole because they speak Creole or because they speak French. Indeed most Creoles in Louisiana now speak English as a primary or as a maternal language. Due to the factors of American racial binarism, industrialization, xenophobia and Anglocentrism, Creoles found themselves in a world where the French language no longer carried economic weight.

In 1921, the American-heavy Louisiana state government passed a measure establishing English as the only language of instruction in both private and public schools. Three years later, the Federal Government passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas on the number of immigrants able to migrate to the United States. Suddenly, the Francophonedominant Catholic Church of Louisiana was cut off from its source of clergypersons in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, to be replaced by Americans. After World War II, sermons in French rapidly declined, and public and Catholic schools now were conducted entirely in English. Many who went off to war returned declaring “J’ai parti un Créole [or, Français], mais j’ai revenu un Américain.”

But anglocentricism continuously found resistance in these parts. English-speaking music record companies, like Columbia Records, travelled the fins fonds of Louisiana in search of “exotic” folk music. For Creoles, this translated into music in French, which was then called la vieille musique française, lala and juré. Through the efforts of these companies emerged, on a large scale, Francophone music from Southwest Louisiana. Eventually, this traditional Francophone music became known as Cajun music. When Clifton Chénier, a native of Opelousas, returned from Port Arthur, Texas, with a new and electrifying spin on Blues, Rock-and-Roll, and Lala, Zydeco music was born. Due to the record labels’ preference for music in French, Cajun and Zydeco musicians indirectly perpetuated a distinct cultural identity in Louisiana from the rest of the nation, even if children were only speaking English at school.

Efforts were made to reintroduce French into the public school system with the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) in 1968. English-as-a-second-language (ESL) state monies were used to support French language public school instruction initially, being reinforced by investment from the French, Belgian and Canadian governments. Grand plans had been made to reintroduce French in all parishes where historically, French had been natively spoken. Almost 50 years later, due to many factors, the agency has yet to reach that goal and French language public school options are now on the decline.

Creole enmity towards institutionalized French may offer some clues in CODOFIL ‘s struggles. For many decades, Francophone Creoles had been told that speaking French was low class, and that their French was “broken,” not “real” French. This likely was due to the fact that the elite Creoles abandoned French and Creole early on in favour of English, leaving poor Creoles as the last speakers of the two languages in large numbers. Speaking French and Creole became, then, a class marker of backwardness. Creoles of that generation no longer saw the economic or social value in French (which is often Creole), equally feeling deeply sceptical of the type of French being taught in schools and therefore not supporting the French language option in the public schools. French, then, has come to be seen by the younger generations as a foreign language rather than a local language.

Efforts were made to reintroduce French into the public school system with the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) in 1968

So, Creoles in Louisiana have experienced many social changes altering how they see themselves. For Creoles whose first (and primary) language is English, race plays an unequivocal role in self-identity. Creole, for Anglicized Creoles, has come to connote an historical legacy of descending from Latin ancestors, but they primarily identify as American. For a rapidly shrinking minority of Creoles whose first language is French, Creole or Spanish, Creole (and later Cajun) continues to be their primary identity in French but an ethno-racial identity when speaking English. Crucially, because race plays a more important role in the lives of Creoles today, Creoles “racialise” things they do and say. The idea that French and Creole languages represent certain racial groups has within this context, materialized in Louisiana.

Such present-day complexities make it difficult to track who really speaks which language. Despite these puzzling realities, there are common threads that inextricably link this racially-bifurcated population of Creoles. Collective memory, Roman Catholicism, Latin-based language heritage, love for family, community, well-seasoned food, dancing and storytelling are shared by Creoles of all racial persuasions. Since these are elements common to all Creole cultures across the globe, it makes for the perfect opportunity to connect Louisiana Creoles with the larger Creole world. Through these linkages, there is no doubt that Louisiana languages and Creole identity will be preserved. The lagniappe, or “something extra,” of course, is that everyone benefits.