Creole Collage – The World of the Gulf South Creoles

creole collage

More than once in ongoing discussion regarding the meaning of the word “Creole,” it has been remarked by some pithy yet insightful party that “anyone who is compelled to ask what a Creole is, is most definitely not one himself.” This may seem like a dismissive attempt at quelling an ongoing debate, yet it certainly reflects the degree of subjectivity and intangibility which surrounds the Creole culture.

After the Civil War, the white Creoles of the Gulf South began to appropriate the term solely for themselves, insisting that to be Creole was to be white and a descendant of the early French and Spanish settlers of the Louisiana territory. This definition completely eliminates the presence of colored persons who identified and were identified as Creoles.

Outside observers tended to identify as Creoles only those very fair-complexioned colored people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast whose manners, customs, and heritages were overwhelmingly Gallic. This definition tends to limit the definition of Creoles to mulattoes or mixed-race people which is an egregious error, which accounts for mulatto or mixed-race people in a variety of cities and regions being labeled as Creole, when in fact they are not. This definition completely eliminates the presence of white persons who identified and were identified as Creoles.

Archie Ebenezer Perkins, a black American scholar and educator, wrote in his 1930 Who’s Who in Colored Louisiana: “The recent effort of American writers to exclude colored people from the term ‘Creole’ is likely the result of a wider separation … than in earlier days. It is generally true that all forms of separateness, even to nomenclature are more definite and pronounced than they were a half century ago. The white Creoles … wish not to have the ‘lower caste’ designated by the same nomenclature as themselves.”

Within the colored community itself, the word “Creole” has often been used disparagingly to refer to those who were perceived as haughty and self-segregating because of fair complexion, fine grains of hair, and if you will, “European” features. The sad reality is that such persons exist in all colored communities and the mere possession of these phenotypical qualities does not and has never made one a “Creole.”

A. E. Perkins, as quoted above, correctly culls the fact that Creole is an identifier which traditionally transcended the pitiable racial caste system. Creole was a cultural identifier and an attestation of heritage. The present writer, being a self-identified Creole (créole de couleur, if it indeed must be noted), could go on with a thousand or more idiosyncratic and anecdotal characteristics and qualities of the Creole people but rather than do so will describe the work of another who has done so.

If nothing else than a testament to the transracial nature of what being Creole is, the writer’s family, being descended from both slaves and antebellum free colored people in rural southern Louisiana, can share in many of the ancestral scenarios presented by the white late-nineteenth and twentieth-century writer to whom we will allude.

Joseph Roger Baudier was born in the heart of New Orleans’ Vieux Carré 30 July 1893 to middle-class parents whose lineages both stretched back in Louisiana for more than a century by the time of his birth. Baudier was reared in what would be described as a “good Creole” family adhering to mores shared among Creole people of his era both white and colored. A journalist, author, and self-taught historian, Baudier wrote a number of texts of local and ecclesiastical history, including the first comprehensive Catholic history of Louisiana, The Catholic Church in Louisiana, in 1930. For twenty-seven years, Baudier published a column in the weekly Catholic Action of the South (the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans) entitled “Historic Old N’Orleans – Pen Point Sketches.” In total, he penned well-over one thousand vignettes of New Orleans’ Creole culture as he lived and learned it at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century.

Baudier recounts for his readers the large extended Creole families with the customary hosts of tantes (aunts), noncs or oncles (uncles), cousins (pronounced coo-zan), and marainnes and parrains (godfathers and godmothers). He alludes to the culinary practices employed by the Creoles and the delicacies – many now famous to the world – which they enjoyed. He notes the array of Latin Catholic devotional practices they observed – distinct for their colorfulness and evocativeness. Banquette (sidewalk), cafétiere (drip coffeepot), mémères (pet name for grandmother), pépères (pet name for grandfather), moustiquaire (mosquito net for beds) – He utilizes throughout his thousand-plus articles, the language they employed, in his day spoken by some families universally and by some interspersed with English – la langue vulgaire (the “vulgar language”) which they increasingly adopted, conceding to the Americanization of their cherished native region.

Within the last sentence above, we arrive at a term which well into the 1950s and 1960s was for the good Creole, a definition of what he was not. Les américains, the Americans, were those people – both white and colored – whom they considered foreigners. Their ancestral language was English, their ethos Anglo and not Latin, their religion Protestant and not Catholic. Their forebears hailed from Virginia, the Carolinas, Mississippi, even Ireland or Germany; they could not claim century-old ties to the great Delta land of the mighty Mississippi as could the Creoles. Their manners and customs while perhaps refined were not Latin, as one might experience in the Caribbean or in southern Europe. Their view of prestige and importance was almost universally built on economic success and not on intangibles such as breeding, pleasure, and the beau monde. If one can understand all of these points, then one can understand why Louisiana is the state with the highest number of persons who live within a mere fifty miles of their birthplace. In a sense, the Creoles are archetypical Southerners, in the sense that they shared and share a culture of mythic stature, one which has been forced to evolve and oftentimes seems to be vestigial.

Baudier wrote his articles for a local audience, offering little background explanations or contextual information. After a long career of writing, he died on 12 November 1960. Leonard V. Huber, a late architect and historian of New Orleans, compiled many of Baudier’s articles along with his own thoughts on Creole New Orleans into a fascinating volume entitled Creole Collage: Reflections on the Colorful Customs of Latter-day New Orleans Creoles which was published by the Center for Louisiana Studies of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) in 1980. The one-hundred and thirty-eight page book offers in a narrative form the vestiges of Creole culture which Baudier serialized, along with beautiful sketches to illustrate the scenes described.

Huber’s work is still widely available and provides a very good cultural collage of the Creole culture. The work is highly recommended as an introduction to le monde Créole (the world of the Creoles).

J.C.L.H.

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