- Identities in Crisis:Alice Dunbar-Nelson's New Orleans Fiction
In recent years, critics have celebrated Caribbean theories of creolization for their creative and protean approaches to identity. E.K. Brathwaite's version of creolization and Wilson Harris's "creative syncretism" (his term for cross-cultural exchanges) have been hailed as powerful critical tools in dismantling destructive binaries and harmful racial hierarchies within Caribbean literature.1 Similarly, Chris Bongie deploys Edouard Glissant's understanding of creolization as a process of cross-cultural exchange to describe the limitations and possibilities of postcolonial theory. Bongie's book, Islands and Exiles, is intended, he states, "quite simply to help further Glissant's argument that 'ours is a creolizing world'" (10). Indeed, H. Adlai Murdoch affirms the potential of Glissant's theory in articulating a relational identity vitally important to the Caribbean region (157–61). Even Peter Childs and Patrick Williams's recent Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory celebrates Caribbean creolization's representation of a "positive, dynamic, processual becoming" (48). In all of these theories, creolization is situated in Caribbean history and racial identities but is, most fundamentally, as Bongie points out, a dynamic practice that can be extended to describe many situations of cross-cultural exchange.
However, the term "creole" also has a long and historically contested set of meanings in the Southern states, which, given the history of American race relations, calls into question the dynamic and creative potential so valued in the Caribbean. For turn-of-the-century American writers such as Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Louisiana's multivalent and contested history is the precondition both for creolization and for the exclusions that, in her version, structure that process. Rather than creative exchange, Dunbar-Nelson's historical [End Page 269] essay, "People of Colour in Louisiana," notes the "horror" and repulsion that would greet any creolizing conflation of Southern racial and ethnic groups (9). The two stories by Dunbar-Nelson analysed here, "Little Miss Sophie" and "The Stones of the Village," describe crises of identity in which race is simultaneously over determined and denied. Racial anxieties corrode the very being of her protagonists, even though their ability to pass for white exposes the dangerous permeability of skin and the threatening impurity of blood. Race, refracted through gender difference, is not an identifying discourse open for creative manipulation, as in Caribbean versions of creolization, but is, quite simply, a matter of life and death. For this reason, I argue, Dunbar-Nelson's representations of creolization in turn-of-the-century New Orleans offer a historically and regionally situated challenge to Caribbean theories.
Louisiana presents a unique version of creole culture, in light of its francophone ties and its Cajun, Anglo-American, and African American social components. Virginia Domínguez points out that, according to one definition, "Louisiana creole" denotes a person of French descent born in the Americas, and Dunbar-Nelson herself uses the French language and Catholicism as cultural markers in her work. These ethnic constructs have, moreover, been creolized into uniquely Southern forms, so that, as Domínguez also notes, a recent French emigrant of the nineteenth century might not necessarily be accepted into creole society (see Domínguez 15, 211). Similarly, Acadian or Cajun descendants, despite their similar historical and linguistic origins, are not included in urban creole society. A particular version of francophone ethnicity remains one way of distinguishing New Orleans creoles from Anglo-Americans, from Europeans, from Acadians, and also from Caribbean versions of creolization.
After 1803, however, French culture was no longer the only defining dimension of New Orleans creole identity. Racial distinctions became increasingly significant during the post-bellum period of Southern history. By the early twentieth century, "creole" was defined either as meaning people of colour or as meaning whites of European ancestry, both with long family histories in New Orleans. Domínguez describes two mutually exclusive definitions of "creole," neither of which acknowledges the existence of the other: "Two types of Louisianians consequently identify themselves today as Creole. One is socially and legally white; the other, socially and legally colored. The white side by definition cannot accept the existence of colored Creoles; the colored side, by definition, cannot accept the white...