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13 Creole Poets on the Verge of a Nation CAROLINE SENTER In September of 1866 an editorial in the Tribune de la Nouvelk-Orleans^ a newspaper published by Creoles of color in New Orleans, warned its readers to beware the volatile political climate of Reconstruction. "Never in the history of our dear but unfortunate country," the editorial read, "has there been a time whose events and vicissitudes called for greater care, watchfulness, and mutual counsel regarding our civil and political welfare, than the present." The newspaper reflected broad social concern . Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the stakes of the time. Only two months before, several hundred people—Creoles, white Anglo-Americans, and recently freed blackAmerican citizens—gathered at the New Orleans statehouse to reconvene the suspended 1864 convention which had established equal rights and universal male suffrage. They were unarmed, but the violence of that day would come to be known as the Massacre of 1866. Police and armed whites, with the sanction of Mayor Monroe, arrived to prevent the assembly. General Baird of the United States Army, having been forewarned of this ad hoc whitesupremacist militia, did nothing to stop it. When the group began its assault on the assembly, the conveners rushed into Mechanics' Hall for shelter but ended up trapped inside against the gunfire. One Creole of color was shot while offering a white flag of surrender; other people jumped from second floor windows. In the end, several dozen people were killed and many others wounded. The Massacre had national reper276 CREOLE POETS ON THE VERGE OF ANATION 277 cussions: Republicans won elections later that year, Congressional Reconstruction was instituted, and Mayor Monroe was removed from office by a newly appointed regional military commander. The Massacre of 1866 had a cultural impact as well; via poems published in the Tribune, it became part of a Creole literary tradition that for generations had linked literary arts to political and social concerns.1 In editorials, political news stories, fiction, and poetry published between 1865 and 1868, the Tribune sought to catalyze a nation devoted to racial equality and male suffrage. The several dozen poems published over the three-year period by various authors, including some published under pseudonym, inspired their readers' struggle for equal rights amid the tumultuous events of the time. The poems were remarkable for both literary and political reasons. The writers aggressively entered the contemporary debate over nation and race from the unique perspective their Creole experience afforded them: as citoyens under French rule, participants and/or supporters of the French Revolution, and descendants of and/or correspondents with Creoles of color in independent Haiti. The Creole poets employed radical literary traditions from the French and Haitian Revolutions to address the possibilities and circumstances of Reconstruction , using the medium of the newspaper to imagine with readers a nation of composite citizenry, an unprecedented United States. Their output was at once bold, brief, and inspired. Printed in the Tribune's front pages, the poems worked to create a vision of the nation based on the newly declared rights of all humans, against which the actual events could be judged. The poems constitute an overtly political manifestation of the Louisiana Creole literary consciousness . Elsewhere, historians Caryn Cosse Bell and Joseph Logsdon have documented the well-established tradition among the group of politicizing social and cultural practices such as literature and benevolent societies. French-derived organizations like Masonic lodges and spiritualist societies had aided Creoles of color in making "a bold and radical departure from the city's antebellum racial order." Similarly, the Tribune poets used the literary and political heritage of Romanticism to discuss i. Editorial, Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orleans, September 4, 1866; W. E. B. DuBois , Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 464, 466; Caryn Cosse Bell, "Revolution, Romanticism, and Reform: The AfroCreole Protest Tradition in the Origins of Radical Republican Leadership, 17181868 " (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 1993), 364. 278 CAROLINESENTER Reconstruction. The poems are written in French and in the Romantic style, but their content focuses on current local and national events. Such a literary strategy had radical implications: Romanticism had allowed people to metaphorize and imagine the French Revolution. The political premises of Reconstruction were revolutionary, and imagining a nation of equality was necessary to carry people's spirits through the violence and disappointment that lay ahead. Invoking the dream of Reconstruction to remind, inspire, and shame readers, the Tribune poets created visionary works that affirmed or...


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