The term "Creole" has long generated confusion and controversy. The word invites debate because it possesses several meanings, some of which concern the innately sensitive subjects of race and ethnicity.
The term “Creole” has long generated confusion and controversy. The word invites debate because it possesses several meanings, some of which concern the innately sensitive subjects of race and ethnicity. In its broadest sense, Creole means “native”—or, in the context of Louisiana history, “native to Louisiana.” In a more narrow sense, however, it has historically referred to black, white, and mixed-raced persons who are native to Louisiana. In short, the word means different things to different people, and more than one ethnic group arguably has a claim to the term.
The word Creole derives from the Latin creare, meaning “to beget” or “to create.” It appears to have been used first by the Portuguese in the form crioulo, which denoted a slave born in the New World (as opposed to one born in Africa). By the 1600s, crioulo came to denote a native New World colonist, regardless of racial or ethnic heritage—black, white, or mixed race. In Louisiana, the term—which evolved into criollo in Spanish and créole in French—adhered to this convention, even though it most commonly referred to persons born into slavery in the New World.
By the 1720s, free mixed-race Louisianans made up such a substantial part of the population that the Code Noir (laws governing race relations in Louisiana) spelled out the group’s special place in colonial society. These Creoles of color, as they were known (gens de couleur libres in French, “free persons of color”), occupied a middle ground between whites and enslaved blacks. They commonly owned property, including slaves, and received formal educations, often in Europe.
In the antebellum nineteenth century, black, white, and mixed-race Louisiana natives continued to use Creole in reference to themselves. The term distinguished native-born persons from increasing numbers of immigrants from overseas and, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Anglo-American newcomers. But with the coming of the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the subsequent collapse of the South’s economy, white Louisianans gradually took away the privileged status that set Creoles of color apart from formerly enslaved black Creoles. By the 1890s, no middle ground remained for the mixed-race ethnic group. As one historian has observed, Creoles of color “were left with nothing but their sense of group identity and a nostalgia for halcyon times.” Although they now occupied the same social stratum as former slaves, Creoles of color continued to hold themselves apart as distinct from blacks. They did so, for example, through the practice of endogamy (marriage within the ethnic group).
As mentioned, many whites in antebellum Louisiana also referred to themselves as Creoles. Among whites, the term generally referred to persons of upper-class French or Spanish ancestry, and even German ancestry (though all eventually spoke French as their primarily language). Many white Creoles could be found in New Orleans and particularly in parishes such as Avoyelles and Evangeline, which, while incorrectly regarded today as historically Acadian, were actually populated by white Creoles. Politically, Louisiana’s aristocratic white Creoles stood in contrast to the more democratic Américains who flooded the state after the Louisiana Purchase. For example, white Creoles in the early nineteenth century used their influence in state government to grant voting rights only to males who paid taxes and owned property, thereby denying the vote to many poor white males. Like the Creoles of color, white Creoles experienced dramatic economic decline after the Civil War. While some managed to retain their sense of identity, many white Creoles—particularly in rural and small-town southern Louisiana—began to intermarry with the region’s large Acadian population.
This intermarriage among white Creoles and Acadians marked a major shift in southern Louisiana’s cultural landscape, for white Creoles had previously disdained the Acadians for their poverty. When they occupied the same economic level, intermarriage between the two groups became more acceptable. The white Creoles and Acadians coalesced into a new ethnic group, the Cajuns. While influenced by white Creole elements, Cajuns retained a core Acadian identity. As a result, many surnames of French Creole (Soileau, Fontenot, and François), Spanish Creole (Dartez, Miguez, Romero), and German Creole origin (Abshire, Hymel, and Stelly) and are now widely considered Cajun. Still, as historian Carl A. Brasseaux noted, “A great deal of confusion regarding this group existed among outsiders, who in postbellum times sometimes labeled them Creoles, sometimes Cajuns. But by 1900, Américains . . . had succeeded in permanently affixing the Cajun identity to [all] poor Francophones”—including poor white Creoles.
Although some white southern Louisianans reject the Cajun label and continue to call themselves Creoles, the term is used today most commonly in reference to those of full or partial African heritage. Like their ancestors, these Creoles are typically of French-speaking, Catholic heritage (distinguishing them from other Louisianans of African heritage who derive from English-speaking, Protestant heritage). Significant populations of these Creoles can be found in New Orleans, the Acadiana region of southern Louisiana, the Cane River/Isle Brevelle area near Natchitoches, and in East Texas as far west as Houston. Moreover, a notable population of Creoles of African descent exists in California, the result of decades of immigration to Creole enclaves in places such as Oakland and San Francisco.
Ethnic group members themselves continue to use the terms black Creole in reference to Creoles presumed to be solely of African descent and Creole of color in reference to Creoles of mixed-race heritage. Increasingly, however, both African-derived groups have put aside old animosities based largely on skin color and social standing to work for mutual preservation. They often describe themselves simply as Creoles, despite criticism from Afrocentric groups like the Un-Cajun Committee of Lafayette. Members of that group call on Creoles of African descent to reject their Creole identity and to refer to themselves solely as African Americans. Regardless, since 1982, Creoles of African descent have operated the Lafayette-based preservation group, C.R.E.O.L.E., Inc. (Cultural Resourceful Educational Opportunities toward Linguistic Enrichment), whose adopted flag reflects the West African origins of both Creoles of color and black Creoles.
In addition to serving as an ethnic label, the word Creole has been applied to a variety of objects produced in Louisiana, such as Creole ponies, Creole onions, and Creole tomatoes. The word is frequently used today in reference to cuisine; Creole cooking is strongly associated with New Orleans, where the term suggests urbane, multicourse dining (as opposed to Cajun cooking, which is associated with rural or small-town fare centered around a single course). And, of course, there is Creole music, from Afro-Caribbean-inspired folksongs of antebellum Congo Square to the more modern, bluesy, accordion-based zydeco of rural and small-town southwestern Louisiana (typified by songs like “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés”). Moreover, the Creole language continues to be used in Louisiana, and in recent decades it has received more attention from the state’s institutions and scholars. These scholars generally regard Creole not as a dialect of French but rather as an “autonomous language” because of “major differences in grammatical structure.” In 1998, Albert Valdman of Indiana University issued the Dictionary of Louisiana Creole, and in 2010 he teamed with several Louisiana scholars to publish the Dictionary of Louisiana French: As Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities. During the same period, the state-chartered Council for Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), which long overlooked Creole in favor of continental French and even Cajun French, began to include the language in its preservation efforts. In fact, CODOFIL now publishes its official web site in French, English, and “Kréyol” (Creole).