Black Creoles of Louisiana

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Black Creoles of Louisiana

ETHNONYMS: Afro-French, Black Creoles, Black French, Creoles, Créoles, Créoles Noirs, Creoles of Color


Identification. Black Creole culture in southern Louisiana derives from contact and synthesis in the region over nearly three centuries between African slaves, French and Spanish colonists, gens libres de couleur (free people of color), Cajuns, and Indians, among others. Today, people in this dominantly African-French population have a range of ethnic styles and associations depending upon residence, family history, Economic status, and perceived ancestry. Creole culture shows syncretism in areas such as folk Catholicism (home altars, voodoo, and traiteurs, or "traditional healers"), language use (French Creole), music/dance (New Orleans jazz and zydeco), the festival observed (Mardi Gras), and foodways (congris, jambalaya, gumbo). As a result of the internal cultural diversity and overlapping boundaries of group affiliation that characterize southern Louisiana society as a whole, Creole ethnic identity is particularly fluid and situation-derived. As Black Creoles gauge their relations to African-Americans, Cajuns, and other Whites (Italian, German, Irish, Isleno, French) among the major ethnic groups in the region, they make multiple group associations and show singular group pride in their diverse heritage. The name "Creole" has a polysemic history, and its meaning remains heavily context-bound to the present. The word derives from the Latin creare (to create) and entered French via Portuguese crioulo in the slave/plantation sphere of West Africa and the tropical New World. In the French colony of Louisiana, it originally referred to European descendants born in the colony. Over time its meaning extended to all people and things of Domestic rather than foreign origin. Today, the old association of "Creole" with strictly European populations of the ancien régime is vestigialthough clung to by some Whites. Although the ethnic meaning of Creole varies in Louisiana, its primary public association is now with people of African-French/Spanish ancestry.

Location. The Creole "homeland" is semitropical French Louisiana in the southern part of the state along the Gulf of Mexico. Creole communities are found in downtown New Orleans neighborhoods; the plantation regions along the Mississippi River to the north and inland bayous, particularly Bayou Teche in Iberia, St. Martin, and St. Landry parishes; and the prairie region of southwest Louisiana, especially including Lafayette, St. Landry, Evangeline, and Calcasieu parishes. The rural southwest portion of this region is also called "Cajun Country" or "Acadiana," names derived from the dominant presence of Cajuns, who were descended ancestrally from French-speaking Acadians of what is now Nova Scotia and were displaced to southern Louisiana in the mideighteenth century. Although many Creoles reject Cajun sociocultural dominance reflected in the naming of the Region, there is no doubt that Cajuns and rural Black Creoles (outside New Orleans) have interacted culturally to a great degree as evidenced in Cajun/Creole music, food, and language. Historic rural outlier settlements are also found on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and in northern Louisiana in the Cane River area south of Natchitoches. Major twentieth-century migrations have occurred into southeast Texas, particularly Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Houston, where the Fifth Ward is called "Frenchtown." Post-World War II migrants fleeing racial discrimination and seeking Economic opportunity also established major Creole populations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

Demography. Early Louisiana census reports used racial terms like mulâtre and fmc (free man of color) to indicate Black Creoles, but modern population studies do not specifically identify Black Creoles. The 1980 census does note over 250,000 people who speak some form of French or Creole, mostly in southern Louisiana parishes. Judging from the identification of Black population in these parishes, probably one-third of the French speakers are Black Creoles. A much larger number of English-dominant speakers affiliate ethnically as Black Creole in Louisiana, Texas, and California.

Linguistic Affiliation. Historically, three varieties of French in Louisiana have been identified: Colonial/Continental French, Cajun French, and French Creole. Although English is increasingly the dominant language among Creoles under forty, all these language varieties have been and are spoken in different Creole communities today. French Creole historically is a language discrete from French. Also called Gombo and couri-veni (for "to go"/"to come" in contrast to aller and venir of standard and dialectical French), various forms of French Creole originated from Contact pidgin language in the slave/plantation spheres of West Africa and the New World. Louisiana Creole bears parallel and possibly historical relations to similar Creoles spoken in the French Caribbean, French West African, and Indian Ocean areas. As the Creole language expanded from the more limited pidgin form to become a mother tongue, it retained a mostly French lexicon, with African-influenced phonology and a restructured grammar not unlike that of other African-European Creole languages. The stronghold of Creole speaking in southern Louisiana is the plantation region along Bayou Teche, where it is sometimes the first language of Whites as well as Blacks. There are also elder Creole speakers in New Orleans. Cajun French is the most widely spoken French language variety throughout rural southern Louisiana. It is used by Creoles in prairie settlements of southwest Louisiana, though they may speak it with influence from French Creole. Creole and Cajun language use do not correlate to ethnicity on an exact basis. Further, the long-term interaction with and dominance of Cajun French, as well as the larger assimilative tendency of English, have made Creole closer to Cajun French. Colonial/Continental French derives from the speakers of French among colonial settlers, planters, mercantilists, and non-Acadian farmer-laborers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the linguistic varieties, this "old Louisiana French" is the least used, although some upper-caste plantation area and urban Creoles speak the language, and its elements are maintained through Catholic schools and French-speaking social clubs in New Orleans.

History and Cultural Relations

Perhaps as many as twenty-eight thousand slaves arrived in eighteenth-century French- and then Spanish-held Louisiana from West Africa and the Caribbean. The early population dominance of Africans from the Senegal River basin included Senegalese, Bambara, Fon, Mandinka, and Gambian Peoples. Later came Guinean, Yoruba, Igbo, and Angolan Peoples. Owing to the high ratio of slaves to Whites and the nature of slavery in the French/Spanish regimes, New Orleans today is culturally the most African of American cities. The African-West Indian character of this port city and nearby plantation region was reinforced at the turn of the nineteenth century by the arrival of nearly ten thousand slaves, free Blacks, and planters from St. Domingue (Haiti).

Among those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Louisiana Creoles with African ancestry, a higher percentage than in the rest of the American South was freed from slavery in Louisiana, owing in part to French and Spanish attitudes toward acknowledgment of social and biological mingling. These cultural differences from the Anglo South were expressed in laws (such as Le Doce Noir and Las Siete Partidas in Louisiana and the Caribbean) that governed relations to slaves and their rights and restrictions and provided for manumission in a variety of circumstances. Of those freed from slavery, a special class in the French West Indies and Louisiana resulted from relationships characteristically between European planter/mercantile men and African slave or free women. This formative group for Black Creoles was called gens libres de couleur in antebellum times. In New Orleans, these "free people of color" were part of the larger Creole (that is, not American) social order in a range of class settings from French slaves, laborers, and craftsmen to mercantilists and planters. Some of these "Creoles of color," as they were also sometimes called, owned slaves themselves and had their children educated in Europe.

Various color terms, such as griffe, quadroon, and octoroon, were used in color/caste-conscious New Orleans to describe nineteenth-century Creoles of color in terms of social categories for race based on perceived ancestry. Given the favored treatment of lighter people with more European appearance, some Creoles would passe blanc (pass for White) to seek privileges of status, economic power, and education denied to non-Whites. In times of racial strife from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Black Creoles were often pressured to be in one or another of the major American racial categories. Such categorization has often been a source of conflict in Creole communities with their less dichotomized, more fluid Caribbean notion of race and culture.


In New Orleans, Creoles have tended to remain strongly affiliated with neighborhoods such as the Treme area near the French Quarter as well as in the Gentilly area. Creole Neighborhoods are centered around involvement in social clubs and benevolent societies as well as Catholic churches and schools. Black Creole sections of varied class/caste affiliations are found in most southern Louisiana towns of any size. In rural plantation areas, Creoles may reside in rows of worker housing or in some cases in inherited owners' homes. In southwestern Louisiana prairie farming regions, small settlements on ridges of high ground or pine forest "islands" may be entirely composed of descendants of Black Creoles who were freed or escaped from plantations to the east. Although Houston has a Creole-influenced Black neighborhood, in West Coast cities people are affiliated through networks maintained in Catholic churches, schools, and dance halls.

In rural plantation areas and some New Orleans Neighborhoods, Creole houses are a regionally distinctive form. These cottage dwellings combine Norman influences in roofline and sometimes historic construction with half-timbering and bousillage (mud and moss plastering), with Caribbean Influences seen in porches, upturned lower rooflines (false galleries), louvered doors and windows, and elevated construction. Most Creole cottages are two rooms wide, constructed of cypress with continuous pitch roofs and central chimneys. They were expanded and decorated according to the wealth and needs of the family. The basic Creole house, especially more elite plantation versions, has become a model for Louisiana suburban subdivisions. Other major house types include the California bungalow, shotgun houses, and mobile homes. Of these, the shotgun shows particular Louisiana characteristics that relate it to the dwellings in the Caribbean and West Africa. It is one room wide and two or more rooms long. Although shotgun houses are often associated with plantation quarters, they have frequently been gentrified in construction for middle-class Creoles and others by being widened, elevated, trimmed with Victorian gingerbread, and otherwise made fancier than the unpainted board-and-batten shacks of slaves and sharecroppers. All these house forms and their many variations, often painted in deep primary colors and rich pastels, create a Louisiana Creole-built environment look that has come to symbolize the region as a whole.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . In rural French Louisiana, Creoles have historically been farmers and itinerant agricultural laborers raising sugar cane, rice, sweet potatoes, and, more recently, soybeans. Chickens, ducks, pigs, cattle, and goats are found in plantation regions and prairie farmsteads. Hunting and, to a lesser extent, fishing may also add to the household economy. In towns and New Orleans, many Creoles have worked as artisans and craftspeople. Today, oil-related jobs and construction and service industries are added to the mix. Creoles also hold an array of mainstream jobs, such as teaching, law enforcement, medicine, and so on. While some Creoles run grocery and sundries stores, most people outside New Orleans neighborhoods or rural Creole settlements are not merchants.

Industrial Arts. Urban Creoles and town dwellers have a long association in the skilled crafts. In New Orleans there is a tradition of Creole plaster work, wrought iron, and carpentry. In rural areas also, carpentry is often a Creole occupation.

Division of Labor. In rural areas, women oversee the Domestic sphere, raising children, cooking, washing clothes, and tending to yard-related animals and gardens. Men are more oriented toward work in cash jobs or as farmers, with additional subsistence derived from hunting, fishing, and gathering firewood. Girls and small children tend to assist their mother, and older boys and young men may work with their father. Increasing urbanization in employment venue and penetration of mainstream society with less gender-specific work roles is transforming the rural division of labor. In an established urban setting like New Orleans, men have similarly tended to be those who labored outside the home in the crafts previously noted, while women have been primary in the Domestic sphere. When women do work outside the home, roles as teachers, nurses, and professional support services dominate. Particularly in New Orleans, middle-class Creoles have entered all layers of professional society, though discrimination remains a problem there and throughout the region.

Land Tenure. A wide variety of situations obtains. Some Creoles inherited extensive family holdings that date to antebellum days. Other holdings, particularly on the prairies, derive from nineteenth-century settlement claims. Some families obtained land after the Civil War through "forty acres and a mule" redistribution.


Kin Groups and Descent. Extensive work on Creole Kinship has not been done except for historical genealogical studies. In a society where much is made of perceived race and free ancestors, Creole concern often focuses on powerful forebears who were free in the antebellum era. In some cases, well-known female ancestors receive special attention. Women in placage relationships to White planters and mercantilists were often granted freedom and, as such, became symbols of family settlement and economic power for succeeding generations. Connection to European ancestry is also often stressed, though since the civil rights era and in a time of heightened ethnic awareness, pride in African ancestry has increased.

Kinship Terminology. Most Creole kinship terms are from the French, as in mere, pere, frere, belle soeur, beau-pere, and so on. Special focus is placed upon marraine and parrain (godmother/godfather) relationships characteristic of Mediterranean societies. Avuncular figures called nonc, often fictive uncles, are common in rural communities as sources of respected male wisdom and support. Nicknaming is common, with attributes from childhood or physical appearance as a focus, such as 'Tite Boy, Noir, 'Tite Poop. Some families appear to have African-rooted nicknames such as Nene, Soso, or Guinee.

Marriage and Family

Marriage within the Catholic church usually takes place during the partners' teens and early twenties. Among upper-caste Creole families, a marriage into a similar status family or with a White may be regarded as successful. As social boundaries with African-Americans are increasingly blurred, marriage outside the Creole community in this direction can serve as an affirmation of connection to the Black American mainstream. Because Louisiana civil law derives in part from the Napoleonic Code, common-law marriage based on a period of cohabitation is generally accorded legal status. There is a tendency to stay within or near Creole settlements and Neighborhoods. In rural areas, families may divide land to assist a new couple. Childbearing is encouraged and families with an agrarian base are large by American standards. Extended families in close proximity allow for mutual child rearing with assistance from older girls. Widowed elders often reside with children and grandchildren. Within the domestic sphere, much respect is accorded women and elders who emphasize values of self-improvement through church attendance, education, and hard work. Young men may challenge these values of respectability by associating outside family settings with people in bars and dance halls, and in work situations with other men. Creole men in groups may assert their reputation as great lovers, sportsmen, cooks, dancers, talkers, and workers, but over time they are expected to settle into a respectable home life. Much is made of the distinction between individuals who choose the street and club life over home and church life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Louisiana is distinguished from the rest of the Anglo-Protestant South and the United States by its French/Spanish Catholic heritage. Thus, parishes rather than counties exist, with police juries as consular boards. Parish sheriffs and large landowners wield much political power. Creoles generally are not at the top of regional power structures, though they do serve on police juries and school boards and as mayors and in the Louisiana state house. In New Orleans, two Creole mayors have served in the last decade. Creole landowners, independent grocers, dance hall operators, priests, and educators are power figures in rural Creole Communities. Such respected men are usually public articulators of social control, upward mobility, Creole cultural equity, and relations to government entities. In addition, social advancement and community support and expressive recreation is organized through associations such as Mardi Gras crews, Knights of Peter Klaver (Black Catholic men's society), burial societies, and, particularly in New Orleans, social aide and pleasure clubs. Recently, official ethnic organizations and events have emerged, such as Creole Inc. and the Louisiana Zydeco Festival.

Religion and Expressive Culture

It is especially in the realms of ritual, festival, food, and music as expressive cultural forms that Creole identity within the region is asserted and through which the culture as a whole is recognized, though often misrepresented, nationally and internationally.

Religious Beliefs. Creoles are, like most southern Louisianians, predominantly Catholic. Southern Louisiana has the largest per capita Black Catholic population in the country. Historically, the Creole churches and parishes, especially those in rural areas and some poorer urban neighborhoods, have been viewed by the church as missionary districts. In addition to various Irish and French-Canadian clergy who have worked in Louisiana, the Baltimore-based Josephite Fathers have long operated in the Black Creole communities. Beyond the official dogma and structures of the Catholic church, a wide range of folk religious practices has flourished, drawing upon African influences, medieval Catholicism, African-American belief and ritual systems, and Native American medicinal and belief systems. Home altars with saints, statues, and holy water are widely used. Houses are trimmed with blessed palms or magnolias in the form of crosses over the doors. Creole Louisiana is probably best known for its association with voodoo (voudun in Haiti) as an Afro-Catholic set of religious practices. Unlike Haiti, Louisiana Black Catholics have remained more connected to official church practices; thus African retentions are less marked. Still, within the context of the United States, Southern Louisiana Catholicism is unique. The practices of healers, spiritualists, and voodoo specialists who utilize an eclectic mix of prayers, candles, special saints, and charms for good or ill is carried on in settings that range from grossly commercial to private within neighborhoods and Communities. Probably the strongest carrier of African-based religious tradition in both Creole and non-Creole Black communities in New Orleans are the spiritual churches. These locally based institutions emphasize spirit possession and ecstatic behavior as part of their service, and unlike such churches elsewhere, they utilize a wide range of Catholic saints and syncretic altars for power figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Michael the Archangel, and Chief Blackhawk. In rural areas, the new charismatic Catholicism has also been Influential.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional healers in rural Black Creole and Cajun communities are called traiteurs.

Ceremonies . Although linked to Catholicism, Mardi Gras has pre-Christian roots which in turn combined with African and a variety of New World traditions to become the major celebratory occasion of the year. In New Orleans, the festival draws large numbers of tourists and has a public focus on elite parades. Blacks and Black Creoles participate in two significant forms of public carnival celebration. One is the Zulu parade, which involves middle- and upper-middle-class participants parodying the White carnival and stereotypes of Blacks by painting their own faces black, wearing wooly wigs and grass skirts, and carrying spears while throwing coconuts to the crowds. The other major group includes dozens of bands of working-class men dressed in fanciful versions of Plains Indians costumes of beads, feathers, and ribbons. The Mardi Gras Indians associate under names like Creole Wild West, White Eagles, or Yellow Pocahontas. These hierarchical groups use esoteric language, call/response singing, and complex drumming to express personal worth through performance and pride among associations of men who are often Otherwise excluded from mainstream social acceptance. Rural Creole Mardi Gras influenced by Cajun culture involves more of a French mumming tradition of going from house to house with men dressed as women, devils, Whites, and strangers to the community. Taking the role of beggar-clowns, the men ask for charité in the form of a live chicken, which they must catch and kill. Those householders giving charité then are invited to a communal supper. Mardi Gras is not exclusive to Black Creoles, but in both urban and rural instances they are occasions utilized to express Creole style and social boundaries through traditional public performances.

Arts. Creole music is often associated with carnival occasions. In New Orleans, jazz has long been created and played by Creoles from Sidney Bechet to Jelly Roll Morton and the Marsalis family. Jazz conjoins European melodies and performance occasions (cotillion, ball, military parade) with African sensibilities of rhythm, ritual/festival performance (originally slave gatherings in public squares), and style. In its mingling of styles to create a new music, jazz is analogous to Black Creole history and culture and is truly a Creole music that has transformed America and the world. Zydeco is the music of Black Creoles in southwestern Louisiana. It is a synthesis of Cajun tunes, African-American blues, and Caribbean rhythms. The word zydeco (les haricots ) literally translates from Creole as "snapbeans." The word may have African root forms, but in Louisiana folk etymology it is attributed to the proverbial phrase les haricots sont pas sales ("no salt in the beans") referring to hard times when no salt meat was available. Performed on accordion and violin with Creole vocals and a rhythm section augmented by a hand-scraped frottoir (rubbing board), zydeco music brings together the full range of the Creole community for weekly dances at bars and church halls, the only exception being the Lenten season. All these Creole expressive cultural forms of festival and music (to which could be added Creole cuisine) have come to mark this African-Mediterranean cultural group as unique within America but related to other Creole societies in the Caribbean, South America, and West Africa. Creoles and creolization of cultural elements set much of the regional tone for southern Louisiana. Their expressive culture has been national and worldwide in impact.

Death and Afterlife. Death and burial practices that stand out are the jazz funerals of New Orleansgenerally linked to West African traditions of celebrating the passage of an acclaimed elder. Such funeral processions involve jazz bands playing dirges as they follow the body to the cemetery and then breaking into upbeat parade tunes after burial as they return home. In rural and urban Creole Louisiana cemeteries, the dead are remembered particularly on Toussaint, or All-Saints' Day (November 1 on the liturgical calendar). Families clean, paint, and decorate the vaulted white, above-ground tombs that characterize the region. In some areas candlelit ceremonies are held.


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