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What is a Creole? A view from Louisiana

June 1, 2012

During our research for Zydeco Nation, we repeatedly ran into this question: What does it mean to be Creole? The Louisiana-born zydeco dancers and musicians whom we interviewed had very different responses, as you’ll hear in the montage at 4:41 mark in our documentary. Two examples from this segment:

Betty LeBlanc: “It’s a mixture of nationalities, the Creole people are. And they are the type of people that’s very close. And if you think you could get in it, you better give it your best shot. ”

Ray Stevens: “In my opinion, they created the Creole in my community, where I was, to divide people, the black people.  If the light-skinned Creoles hadn’t been segregated before the war, they’d have segregated themselves just like the whites.”

So we were particularly interested in this email from Don Gassie, who lives in Lafayette, Louisiana:

You use the term Creoles without differentiating black and white Creoles. When you hear something like “He was from an old, respected New Orleans Creole family,” this refers to whites who still call themselves Creoles.

It was not until well into the 20th century that Blacks began to use the term Creole for themselves if they were descended from slaves of the upper-class New Orleans white Creoles. Many of them actually had white Creole blood as a result of sex accompanying slavery. Now almost all southern Louisiana Blacks with a hint of French heritage call themselves Creoles. White Cajuns also sometimes called themselves Creoles because it was a jump in status from being a rustic that showed up in Louisiana after being ejected from Acadie (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick).

The French spoken by the old line New Orleans families was called Creole and it was a cultured French that differed from the rough French spoken (but not written) by Blacks. My grandmother was from St. Martinville, Louisiana and she spoke three varieties of French: proper French, learned at the convent school; Cajun French because she was a Cajun by descent; and black or “nigger French” (now called Creole) because that was what they used to converse with the servants that they hired.

I am 71 now and as a young man in Lafayette, Louisiana I remember going to see Queen Ida at Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit in nearby Cankton. One night I was part of a group (including Queen Ida) who enjoyed gumbo after the music ended. It was  “loser’s gumbo,” created by the owner’s of Jay’s from cockfight losers.

I later moved to California and had occasion to work with some of the Blacks that had moved to the Richmond area. When I would periodically visit Louisiana they would ask me to bring back Louisiana food. One guy would put on barbecues and gumbos in support of political campaigns, also a feature of Louisiana life. I remember bringing him 15 pounds of dried shrimp one time. There was also a Louisiana fish and poultry store near the bay in Berkeley. One time I was shopping there just before New Year and they were opening boxes containing meat that was packed in dry ice and wrapped in New Orleans Times-Picayune newspapers. Besides Louisiana fish such as garfish, choupique and buffalo there were cleaned coon carcasses. The coons were eaten by some Blacks for good luck as the new year arrived.

Barry responded to Mr. Gassie: “‘Creole,’ of course, is a word that has had many meanings over the past few centuries. Entire careers have been spent studying the word. Richard and I chose to use the definition preferred in southwest Louisiana and now Northern CaliforniaFrench-speaking people of color, who often have mixed ancestry. We also learned, particularly from Ray Stevens, that the word is loaded even in these communities, and not everyone embraces it. But we opted to go with the consensus, while also acknowledging the differences of opinion.”

Here’s Mr. Gassie’s response:

You are correct in stating that Creole as used currently in Southwestern Louisiana does seem to refer mostly to persons of mixed race. But when you look at newspaper articles from the late 1800s you will see a completely different story. If you want to see some of the evolution of the term Creole read the blogs of DBarry in the Lafayette Advertiser. He reprints articles from the Lafayette Gazette and the Lafayette Advertiser dating from just after the Civil War up until the first few years of the 1900s.

You can also get period articles by subscribing to newspaperarchives.com. I remember one article where a show (late 1800s?) was advertised as having Creole performers, but when it was learned that the show was actually performed with “quadroons and mulattoes” in another town the Lafayette whites caused a stir and the show was cancelled. Besides black and white Creoles I have also read of German and Italian Creoles in Louisiana. I went to college with a descendant of Spanish Creoles from New Orleans, a Garcia who was all Caucasian. As language and culture evolve people sometimes attach labels to themselves that do not accurately reflect chronology.

One final note from Mr. Gassie: “Ever hear about the Wisconsin Creoles? Here is yet another take on the term Creole: http://video.wpt2.org/video/1869575226.”

Special thanks to Don Gassie for his permission to reprint this illuminating correspondence.

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