Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Chopin & Sou. Lit. Links
N. O. & Other Links
CREOLE IN BLACK AND WHITE
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
THE BIRACIAL HIERARCHY
TITLE BASED ON
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.
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.
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.
Edwin Adams (1961). Louisiana: A narrative history. Baton
Rouge: Claitor's Publishing Division.
Oliver (1959). New Orleans. New York: the MacMillan Company.
Gaspar "Buddy" (1984). Proud, peculiar New Orleans: The
inside story. Baton Rouge: Claitor's Publishing Division.
F. Leon, <CODE1@delphi.com> "The one drop of Black blood rule," 23
1996, <http://www.he.net/~skyeagle/noir.htm> (April 29, 1999).
--Content prepared by Ashton
Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.
Date Page Last Updated 01/08/00