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CREOLE IN BLACK AND WHITE

    What is Creole?  The actual meaning of this expression has evolved several times since it was first introduced in the city of New Orleans.  In the history of the city, it has been used by several groups to set themselves apart from others.  Historians have bandied the word about quite a bit, usually supplying a superficial textbook definition, and selecting one particular group with which to bequeath the rights to the title (which paints anyone else with a possible claim as a poseur.)  This is big mistake.  It is indisputable that the meaning of a word can evolve over the years, and this word in particular has done just that. 

    Attention should be paid to parts of speech.  In some contexts, Creole is used as an adjective, and in some it is a noun.  To add further dimension to an already tangled skein, sometimes the word will be encountered in its capitalized form, and sometimes not.
(We capitalize it in New Orleans, however, so that is how you will encounter it here).
 

BEGINNINGS

    The word's origination can be credited to Spain.  As they began to establish plantations in South America, the term Criollo was used by the Spaniards to distinguish those born in the New World from the Peninsulares, those born on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain.  Both groups were the progeny of two Spanish parents.  What made them different was the distinct  circumstances of their births.  The Peninsulares enjoyed more influence because they had actually been to the mother country, and the Criollos were delegated to a lower rung in the social hierarchy because they had never had the privilege of doing so.

    Once the Spanish took possession of New Orleans, they began to use Criollo with regards to the  French.  The term was adopted, albeit in modified form (because the French had to make it theirs before they would avail themselves of its use), and became Creole.  The French and Spanish born in Nouvelle Orleans were Creoles.  Those born in the Old World were simply called French or Spanish.
 

KATE CHOPIN'S CREOLES

    The New Orleans Creoles themselves again advantageously altered the meaning of the word.  The canny Creoles quickly grasped an understanding of the Spanish caste system, and a Creole of mixed lineage was a step closer to Spain than one whose parents were both French, and so could aspire to greater things than one who was solely French.  It began to be used to signify only the progeny of unions where there was the mixing of French and Spanish blood, and ceased to be applied to those exclusively of French descent.  To be a Creole meant to be, at once, of Spain and of France (for French was the dominating language and culture of New Orleans, and, aside from being acknowledged as good administrators for the city, for the most part the French felt that all the Spanish had contributed to the city was interesting architecture).  Of course, most of the inhabitants of New Orleans could claim ancestors of both nationalities after only a few generations.  This group of people, or their descendants if they maintained the bloodlines, are the Creole about whom Kate Chopin wrote.
 

CREOLES DE COULEUR

    The word Creole was first associated with persons of color in Nouvelle Orleans by the Creoles themselves.  They used it to describe their property.  Much as we use the term domestic as opposed to imported to specify local origin, Creole, as an adjective, came to be commonly be seen as meaning "from the city".

    The Catholic Church seems to be the first to actually call non-whites and bi-racial individuals Creoles, instead of merely describing them as such.  Free persons of Santo Domingan descent born in the colony were called Creoles de couleur.  Slaves born here were described as negres Creoles.  This information was included in baptismal records to indicate domestic birth, in effect distinguishing the baptism of converts from the baptism of babies born to Catholic parents.  In part, these records were necessary to show compliance with the Code Noir, which dictated that all slaves were required to be baptized Catholic by their owners.  These records proved to be the only practical birth certificates available to many of these people.
 

 A BRIEF FRENCH LESSON

    In the English language, an adjective precedes the noun it describes.  In the phrase  “the Creole tomato”, Creole is obviously used as an adjective to describe the noun tomato. In the phrase “the passionate Creole", Creole is just as obviously used as a noun, described by the adjective passionate.

    In the French tongue, most adjectives usually follow their objects.   In the phrase  “le Creole discret” (the discreet Creole), Creole is the subject, followed by the adjective discret.  In the phrase “la cuisine Creole” (Creole cooking), Creole is an adjective describing the noun cuisine.
 
 

DIRTY CARPETBAGGERS

    Most people think of both our fair city, and the country of America, as great melting pots of different cultures, but the Creoles and the Americans remained as separate as oil and vinegar.  In the middle of what was then New Orleans, the Americans constructed a great street called Canal to segregate themselves from the Creoles.  Everything West, or "above" of Canal was called Uptown, and was in the American sector.  All East, or "below" Canal was downtown, and known as the French Quarter.

       When the Americans established themselves in New Orleans, they made a mess of things.  First, they shifted the established balance of power, adding a competitive component to an already dynamic climate.  They resisted amalgamation by the Creole culture, and went out of their way to distance themselves from it.  They also refused to speak French, the primary language of the city's inhabitants.  The Americans began using Creole (as a noun) with regards to all Creole Blacks, because they would not develop an understanding of the most rudimentary nuances of French grammar.  They indiscriminately labeled anyone from the Creole French parts of the city as being Creoles.  

    It is interesting to note that there was segregation amongst the Blacks which paralleled the separation of the Americans and the Creoles.  Similar to the nomenclature used by the Church to distinguish between free blacks and slaves, the Blacks in the Uptown area called themselves Blacks.  Those living below Canal chose to call themselves Negroes or Persons of Color.  Although many Creole persons of color had lighter skins due to mixed ancestry, the true reason for the division was, as with the Americans and the Creoles, a cultural phenomenon, and not a racial one.
 

DROPS OF BLOOD

    The method used by the French to determine a person's racial makeup was quite formulaic.  One drop of black blood was all that was required for one to be considered colored, but an intricate procedure was used to determine the percentage of the varying ethnic influences which constituted an individual, and an elaborate and internally supported caste-like social system was devised, and adhered to, based on the result.  One's ancestry was traced back to the eight generation, resulting in 128 ancestors who contributed a part of one's racial makeup.  The race of these 128 person is what determined to what degree that individual was colored.   These degrees were assigned names, and created several classes within the gens des coleurs.
 

THE BIRACIAL HIERARCHY

PARTS WHITE PARTS NON-WHITE DISTINCT TITLE BASED  ON RACIAL MAKEUP
128 parts 0 parts White
127 parts 1 part Sang Melee
120 parts 8 parts Mamelouque
112 parts 16 parts Metif or  Octoroon
96 parts 32 parts Quadroon or  Quarteron
64 parts 64 parts Mulatto 
48 parts 80 parts Marabou
32 parts 96 parts Griffe 
16 parts 112 parts Sacatra
0 parts 128 parts Negro
 

MODERN CREOLES

    Many who descend from the Creoles bristle at the thought of non-white persons choosing to use the term Creole to identify themselves, thinking it to somehow cast a questionable light on their own ancestry.  They are right.  It does.  Many a Creole man had gotten one of his slaves with child, and while not Creole, the resultant children were not Black.  Lighter skins won these children positions closer to hearth when grown, and many of these persons bore children to white owners or employers.  Subsequent generations forged a lasting and intimate bond between the gens de couleur and the Creoles.
 
    While it is not uncommon to hear the words mulatto and quadroon even today, this system was dispensed with long ago.  Aside from being demeaning, it was just so positively ridiculous.  The persons of multi-racial descent, not White, but not embraced by Blacks, sought out a name which was readily accessible, and could identify them, adulterated as their blood was, as an unadulterated group.  Creole was handy.  Due to the source of the white blood coursing through their veins, and to the fact that history had seen the word so frequently associated with all of their ancestors, it would seem that their claim is as valid as any.

    Most persons of bi-racial lineage stemming from colonial New Orleans will, if asked, state that they are Black.  Some will even label themselves Creole.  But the word which once expressed circumstance of birth is now usually applied to the enduring remnants of a rich culture occasionally encountered around and in the city of New Orleans.
 
 
 
 
SOURCES

Davis, Edwin Adams (1961). Louisiana:  A narrative history. Baton Rouge: Claitor's Publishing Division.

Evans, Oliver (1959). New Orleans.  New York: the MacMillan Company.

Stahl, Gaspar "Buddy" (1984).  Proud, peculiar New Orleans: The inside story. Baton Rouge: Claitor's Publishing Division.

Wilson, F. Leon, <CODE1@delphi.com> "The one drop of Black blood rule," 23 May 1996, <http://www.he.net/~skyeagle/noir.htm> (April 29, 1999).

 

--Content prepared by Ashton Jung.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

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