by Edward J. Branley

I wrote the following article for the New Orleans Internet Mailing List some time ago. While the article doesn't deal with the difference between Cajun and Creole, it tries to explain what a Creole actually is. Here in New Orleans, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cajuns are not Creoles. Real New Orleanians take exception when people say they're coming to town to eat some authentic Cajun food, because we know that restaurants in the city are, for the most part, Creole, not Cajun.

The term "Creole" is a much misunderstood term. It means many things to many people. In current affairs usage, Creole is the language spoken by Haitians. In New Orleans, Creole has a long and distinguished heritage.

Aside from Native Americans, the first settlers in the New Orleans area were French. As New Orleans developed into a port city, a heavy Spanish influence began to almost overshadow the influence of the initial French settlers. This Spanish influence grew even greater after the Louisiana Territory was sold to Spain. After a couple of generations, the difference between a Frenchman and Spaniard was negligible in terms of native New Orleanians. Thus was born the Creole.

Of course, there were other types of people in and around New Orleans besides the French and Spanish. Native Americans, Englishmen, Africans, and various natives from the islands all interacted and intermingled with the Creoles. While it was a city with a strong slave trade, New Orleans was also home to many "free persons of color", who moved about the city with no restrictions whatsoever. The melting pot that made the New Orleans native began growing. By the time the Americans took over, the idea that a Creole was someone of pure French/Spanish descent was already a myth.

With the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States in 1803, and Louisiana's subsequent admission to the Union in 1812, a new cultural element entered the city. Americans, primarily of English extraction began moving to the city in larger numbers. New Orleans' status as the number two American port also meant a larger number of European immigrants, particularly Germans, started settling in this area. This is when the "uptown" and "downtown" differences in New Orleans life began to develop. The Americans moved in upriver from Canal Street and the Quarter, leaving the down river or "downtown" side (including the Quarter) to the established natives. There was a strong language barrier between the Americans and the natives, since the natives continued to speak French and Spanish rather than switching to English. To the Americans, a native New Orleanian who moved in the circles that spoke French was a Creole. Slaves, free persons of color, and whites were all lumped together under this designation.

By the time of Reconstruction, the racial tensions between blacks and whites also affected the use of the term Creole. Whites who didn't want anything to do with blacks beginning refining the term to include only those who were of French/Spanish descent and were 100% white. Blacks whose families were free persons of color prior to the war now found themselves lumped in with freed slaves and now were simply regarded by whites as "colored" or "Negroes". This didn't set well with many blacks in the city who regarded themselves as higher on the social ladder than the recently freed slaves. In most cases, the black city natives were indeed of a lighter skin color than the slaves. This was mainly due to the racial intermingling that took place in the city. The law stated that anyone with at least one black great-grandparent (known as an "octoroon") was technically "colored" in terms of Jim Crow legislation and such. Quadroons and octoroons used the term Creole to distinguish themselves from the (normally) 100% "colored" folks now moving into the area.

As time grew on, the use of the term Creole as a method to separate one group of blacks in New Orleans from another all but defined the term for practical purposes. There are still white people who maintain that Creoles are "pure" white folk, but the common definition of a Creole in New Orleans today is a light-skinned black person who can trace their family history in the city back a very long way. White society all but dropped use of the term because Creoles became a sub-group of blacks.

One of my favorite anecdotes concerning the use of the term Creole comes from the TV show "Frank's Place." In case you don't remember the show, it's about a Boston-raised black man who moves to New Orleans from up north to take over the family restaurant, called "Chez Louisianne" in the show. The restaurant and its denizens are patterned directly off of Chez Helene. Anyway, being a prominent business owner, Frank is asked to join a local men's club, called the "Capital C" club. He's flattered at first, but is confused when he realizes that his kitchen staff and friends are quite upset that he might actually join. It's explained to him that the "C" in "Capital C" stands for Creole, and that members must pass the "grocery bag test" as part of admission. If you lay a brown grocery bag on your arm and you're darker than the bag, you're not eligible for admission.

Frank confronts the member of the club who invited him to join, and all of this is confirmed. Seems that the club was trying to open up its membership a bit, and they felt that Frank would be a good start. Frank says something like, "I was the 'first black' in high school to do this and the 'first black' in college to do that. Now you want me to be the 'first black' ... in an all black club?!" Strange but true.

So, "Creole" means different things to different people. The one common theme throughout all of the definitions, however, is that Creole is referring to something that is native New Orleans. Whether it's Creole tomatoes, Creole cuisine, or a Creole debutante, they're all New Orleans.

by Edward J. Branley <elendil@yatcom.com>,
Copyright 1995.
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