Sybil Kein, ed. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. xxiv + 344. $47.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2601-1.
Reviewed by Michael Fitzgerald (Department of History, St. Olaf College )
Published on H-South (January, 2001)
Reflections on the History of the Louisiana Afro-Creole Population
Reflections on the History of the Louisiana Afro-Creole Population
I would confess, at the outset, to having had difficulty evaluating this book fairly, and only partially because I am not a specialist on the precise topic. This anthology seems only marginally suitable for a review with H-South as an audience. So far as can be readily determined, not one of the fourteen contributors is an historian by training. This collection reflects more on the culture and literature of Louisiana's free Afro-Creole population and their descendants, rather than on the history itself. Indeed, "many" of the contributors are themselves of Creole background, which heightens the appreciative tone of the essays (p. xxiv). Given the diversity of this collection, ranging from "Louisiana Creole Food Culture" to the linguistic aspects of Louisiana Afro-Creole French, I'll confine my remarks primarily to those portions of most interest to Southern historians.
Most scholars will already be familiar with the Gulf coast Creoles, of mixed African and French or Spanish descent, and their distinctive situation as an intermediate caste between the white masters and the black slaves. Their social and legal status, even after the American takeover of Louisiana in 1803, resembled that of a third racial category. This topic has become timely of late, with the census dispute over counting African Americans of "multiracial" background, and the recent celebrity of the golf prodigy Tiger Woods. The traditional American binary racial division seems more problematic than ever, and there has been an effort to reclaim the positive aspects of the Creole past. This book is clearly a part of that effort.
This emphasis raises some issues of tone. The editor introduces Michael Fabre's piece about several Afro-Creoles in France with the comment that "as a group" these expatriates were "displaced geniuses" (p. xx). The men examined were talented enough, but geniuses? From the point of view of Southern historians, I suspect that several of the essays are implausibly celebratory. Some do not fully engage with the more troublesome aspects of the Afro-Creole past. For example, Joan M. Martin's discussion of Creole women and interracial sexual relationships, and especially the prevalence of contractually-negotiated and socially-sanctioned mistress arrangements, leaves some problematic features unexamined.
Martin argues that "the actions of the free woman of color can be deemed not only as moral and ethical, but also as courageous. They didn't choose to live in concubinage; what they chose was to survive" (p. 65). This is an arguable interpretation, given the constraints of the situation, but it tends toward a simplistic view of the ethical issues involved. Similarly, the author contends that the "Creole mothers' efforts to obtain arrangements with white men in no sense compromised their daughters' honor" (p. 66). For most modern readers, these assertions are a bit much. The well-known "Society balls" or "Quadroon balls," in which Creole mothers paraded their daughters before wealthy white men, must seem troublesome, whether or not "every modicum of decorum" was observed (p. 65).
Similar issues are raised by some of the discussions of the relations between the light-skinned, freeborn Creole population and their enslaved fellows of African descent. There may be some disinclination to confront the elitist views that were all but inevitable given their situation. One essay talks about the influx of skilled black immigrants from Haiti, without addressing the distinctive background of these exiles (p. 110). One would think these people being free refugees from a slave insurrection would raise certain political issues, but there's little sign of it here.
The ambiguity of Creole political behavior is raised by Caroline Senter's essay on the group of poets writing for the New Orleans Tribune and other publications of the Civil War era. The Tribune activists' egalitarian credentials during Reconstruction are laudable, as various recent studies have found, but the issue is more complex than the author suggests. The wartime predecessor of the Tribune, L'Union had endorsed emancipation but not suffrage for the former slaves. This was a reasonable position, but it is probably relevant in discussing the postwar divisions between emancipated blacks and the previously free Creoles. Nor is the author's hand on historical detail all that sure; it is factually not correct that the 1864 Louisiana Constitution "established equal rights and universal male suffrage" (p. 276).
This latter issue, of accuracy in matters of historical fact, recurs elsewhere in the collection. Reconstruction elections in the spring of 1867 did not result in a "state legislature" evenly divided between blacks and whites; these elections occurred some months later, and they summoned a constitutional convention (p. 290). Reconstruction in Louisiana was not overthrown in 1874, but in 1877 (p. 39). Abolitionist sentiment is not generally thought to have increased "around 1825," though this is admittedly a matter of interpretation (p. 25). Not very significant errors, perhaps, but they add up, and they do undermine the reliability of the text on more substantive issues. One essay finds that in 1788, the free black female to male ratio in the colony was nearly seven to one; this seems incredibly high, especially given the two to one figure for New Orleans quoted a few pages earlier (pp. 66, 63). Maybe both numbers are correct, but it is difficult to place too much confidence in them.
Not all the essays in the collection share the problems described above, and several of them are quite strong. Anthony G. Barthelemy's essay on contemporary issues of Creole racial categorization engages fully with some individuals' tendency to assume an identity as white. Similarly, Arth A. Anthony's fascinating examination of turn of the century New Orleans Creoles, based on oral interviews some decades ago, highlights the complexity of the choices the circumstances dictated. This essay serves as an excellent social history of a group of people in economic crisis. Several of the interviewees straightforwardly argue that Creoles often assumed a "white" status at the workplace because the better positions were off limits to blacks; these people often lived bifurcated lives, maintaining their traditional Creole identity off the job. Scholars will find particularly interesting the discussion of the job choices available to women under the circumstances, and which work was thought appropriate for married women.
Other individual pieces offer positive contributions. Jennifer DeVere Brody's analysis of a 1859 drama, The Octoroon, provides an analysis of popular attitudes toward the racial intermixture long identified with Louisiana. Likewise, Michael Fabre's detailed examination of the careers of Louisiana Creole expatriates in France seems well researched, on a topic that American historians have not much explored. Historians will also be interested to see the reprint of a long overview of the topic by the turn of the century writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a Creole literary figure of some significance.
In discussing an edited volume of this sort, one can obviously only hit certain highlights, and I've concentrated on those aspects of most obvious relevance to H-South readers. Overall, the collection seems a bit uneven and unsure on political detail, but several of the essays will be of considerable usefulness to the readers of H-South and to historians more broadly. The topic is certainly one of considerable currency, and the editor, the poet Rachel Kein, is to be commended for pulling together a worthwhile collection.
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Michael Fitzgerald. Review of Kein, Sybil, ed., Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color.
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