Professionals involved in therapy and counseling with members of the Creole culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana should be aware of the history and traditions of this group that make it distinctive from all others in the United States, and indeed from the French-speaking Cajun communities in the same region. In Louisiana, Creoles are not simply the white descendants of the early French and Spanish colonists, although in the post-Civil War era of Jim Crow there was a major attempt to redefine them as 100% white. This was never the case in history since they are a mixed-race people descended from Europeans, Native Americans and African slaves during the 18th Century and occupied a special caste in pre-Civil War Louisiana. They spoke their own language known as Creole French, as do tens of thousands of their descendants today, and in appearance have often been able to 'pass' as white. Those who could not were harshly discriminated against during the period of segregation, while many Creoles were involved in leading the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 300 years, they have not lost their memory of being a distinct caste and culture in Louisiana, and still have many traditional African customs that have been embraced by much of the population, including whites, such as jazz music and jazz funerals, Creole cuisine like jambalaya and gumbo, and rituals associated with Voodoo (Vodun). They are a family-oriented people who follow a traditionalist form of Catholicism, especially in rural areas, and have their own poems, oral history, songs, legends and tall tales that have been written down and compiled over the decades.
Creole is a term that has had many meanings over the centuries, although is present-day Louisiana it refers to natives of the state who identify with French language and culture. Many of these are of African-American or mixed-race ancestry, even though much of this was concealed during the era of Jim Crow segregation as those who were lighter-skinned identified themselves as whites. Indeed, contrary to its original meaning of descendants of slaves born in the New World -- or of any person native to the French and Spanish colonies -- in the 19th Century it was actually redefined to refer to the French-speaking elite of planter-aristocrats who governed the state. Not even the Acadians (Cajuns), the French-speaking deported from Canada by the British, qualified as Creoles in this sense, and in fact have never identified themselves as such. Even so, it was impossible to deny that Creoles of color (a term that only came into common usage after the Civil War) existed and that mixed-race ancestry was the norm in Louisiana among the Creole population. Creole culture produced jazz music and food like gumbo and jambalaya that blended African, Native American, French and Spanish cuisine, as well as "Voodoo" (Vodun) in its American form (Juang, 2008, p. 315). Creole French is still "spoken by tens of thousands of people, white as well as black, in some parts of the state," while "Afro-creole folk life, religion, and music, most noticeably jazz, spread up the Mississippi Valley into Memphis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and, ultimately, the world" (Hall, 1992, p. 60).
Most of the French migrants who came to Louisiana in the 18th Century did not arrive voluntarily but were galley slaves, paupers, beggars and convicts deported by the government. Louisiana was never a destination of choice for immigrants until the great sugar boom after 1790, when the colony began to develop a true planter aristocracy. Below the elite levels, however, most of the French immigrants and Creoles did not own slaves, and were considered peasant farmers and peones by colonial officials. Due to a shortage of white women in the colony, "race mixture was common and widely accepted" in ways that were never permitted in British North America (Hall, p. 66). African and Native American slaves, white soldiers, convicts and indentured servants all fled into the forests and swaps frequently and lived as free farmers, trappers and hunters, who still traded regularly with New Orleans. About two-thirds of the Africa slaves brought to Louisiana in the 18th Century came from the Bambara culture in Senegal and they created the Louisiana Creole language that was also spoken by many whites, especially the lower classes.
Samba Bambara was one of their folk heroes who had led a conspiracy in 1731 to overthrow the government in alliance with the Indians and free the slaves. He was already legendary for conspiring against the French slave traders in Senegal and leading a revolt of the slave ship, but his conspiracy was uncovered by the governor Le Page du Pratz and he was executed. His words to the Le Page were some of the first ever recorded in the Louisiana Creole language "Ah! M. le Page li diable li sabai tout" or "Mr. Le Page is a devil who knows everything" (Hall, p. 76). Moluron was another legendary folk hero among the Creoles, representing a slave who frequently ran away into the swamps, and there were many songs, poems and stories about him. Louisiana slaves had one song that served as a warning to their masters:
Moluron! He! Moluron! He!
C'est pas 'jordi mo dans moune
Si ye fait ben avez muin moreste
Si ye fait mo mal, m'a-chap-pe.
Moluron! He! Moluron! He!
I wasn't born yesterday
If you treat me well, I'll stay
If you treat me bad, I'll run away.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Hall, p. 78.]
Maroon settlements of runaway slaves existed all around New Orleans, and in the late-18th Century their leader was Juan Malo or St. Malo, whose name in Bambera means "a charismatic leader who defies the social order" (Hall, p. 80). His base was in the town of Ville Gaillaude, which has an ax buried in a tree near its entrance, placed there by St. Malo who had uttered the curse "Woe to the first white who passes this boundary" (Hall, p. 82). There were many folk songs and legends about him in Creole oral tradition, especially about how the governor required two hundred men to defeat St. Malo, who was captured and executed in 1784.
New Orleans is unique in that it was one of the few large cities in the South before the Civil War, and in having a strong French influence, combined with the Catholic religion and Creole culture. It has never been studied as much as the major industrial cities like Boston, New York and Chicago, nor did it ever become a major industrial center. New Orleans developed largely independent of any influence from the British North American colonies like Massachusetts and Virginia, and its Creole inhabitants ensured "not only that English was not the prevailing language, but also the Protestantism was scorned, public education unheralded, and democratic government untried" (Hirsch and Logsdon, 1992, p. xi). Both Northerners and Southerners were shocked by this state of affairs, as well as the city's "bawdy sensual delights" and "proud free black population," none of which existed in most other parts of the United States (Hirsch and Logsdon, p. xi). Blacks who came to Louisiana from Haiti and West Africa brought the Vodun religion with them, and even had many followers among white Christians. New Orleans had Vodun parades and rituals, while African-American "Voodoo Queens" had "a broad clientele that included blacks, whites, Indians and coloreds" who would obtain fortune telling, readings, healing and magical charms (Johnson, 2003, p. 447). Both Creoles and English-speakers still use terms like "oungu" and "gri-gri" to refer to magical charms and amulets, which originated in Haiti and Benin, while the term "zin" is a Bambera word having the same meaning (Hall, p. 85).
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville visited New Orleans during his travels, as well as most other major cities in the U.S., and also found it highly unusual and atypical. In Detroit, which was then on the frontier, he still found Native Americans who "spoke of the French fondly and of the English fearfully," while in Canada he found 600,000 French-speakers who were defiantly proud of their language, culture and religion, and had a "deep cleavage" with the English (Hirsch and Logsdon, p. 4). He thought that the French and Anglos were not quite so hostile towards each other in New Orleans, and that they also coexisted with a variety of ethnic groups in a city that was already a "patch-work of peoples" of a kind he had observed nowhere else in Europe, Canada of the United States (Hirsch and Logsdon, p. 7). He saw the city as a combination of French, Spanish, English, German, Native American and African influences that also had the largest population of free people of color anywhere in the South. Tocqueville noted that many in this group had very "light complexions" and that:
The dignified and respectful demeanor of the French-speaking free black population clashed dramatically with the status that both the French and Anglo-Americans appeared willing to accord them.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Hirsch and Logsdon,…