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  • When Were We Creole?
  • Michael Malouf (bio)
Review of: Charles Stewart, ed. Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory. Walnut Creek: Left Coast, 2007.

Ever since James Clifford declared in 1988 that "we are all Caribbeans now living in our urban archipelagoes" there has been a rise in the theoretical cachet of creolization as a term that-- along with its synonyms hybridity and transculturation--might explain the cultural diversity that has emerged with globalization. What distinguishes Clifford's quote is its use of the Caribbean as a site whose experiences might be generalized as a universal concept. The utopian impulse behind Clifford's phrase appears as a leitmotif in the essays edited by Charles Stewart in Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory which admirably seeks to rescue this term from its status as an epigram and recover its analytical force by turning to its origins in linguistic, anthropological, and historical theories and methodologies. While this interdisciplinary collection does not offer a single definitive interpretation of creolization, it does represent a shared concern with the specific question of what happens when a term that is meant to be descriptive becomes prescriptive. Using Clifford Geertz's terms, they ask how and why scholars collapse a model of into a model for. In what ways is creolization different from its synonyms? These essays answer these questions by examining the fate of a creative metaphor as it travels across disciplines and takes its place within many different theoretical and conceptual models. While each of the essays makes its own particular critique of creolization, they all offer models for how it might be disentangled and more usefully deployed.

Traditionally, most work on creolization has been based in history, linguistics, and cultural studies of the Caribbean region, from Fernando Ortiz's landmark work on transculturation to the early 1970s work of Kamau Brathwaite, Sidney Mintz, and Wilson Harris, where creolization emerged, to Chris Bongie's later Islands and Exiles. Antonio Benitez-Rojo's recent essay, "Creolization in Havana: The Oldest Form of Globalization," is typical of recent uses in viewing the term as a synonym for globalization. The term is also used interchangeably with hybridity, and to describe global flows, as in the 1992 declaration by the anthropologist Ulf Hannerz that "this world of movement and mixture is a world in creolisation" (qtd 2). By contrast, the twelve essays in this collection follow in the wake of recent historical studies of creolization that expand our sense of the term beyond the Caribbean region, such as Megan Vaughan's history of Mauritius, Creating the Creole Island and Michel Rolph Trouillot's Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, both of which avoid using the term as only a metaphor for globalization. But this work is most unique in its interdisciplinary connections--returning anthropological appropriations of the term to its roots in linguistics--and in its geographical scope as it expands our sense of creolization beyond the Caribbean basin. Yet as Stewart observes in his carefully balanced and thoughtful introduction, the shared impulse of the collection to recover an original theoretical formulation stands in ironic opposition to the conventional sense of the term, which has come to signify the refusal of return to origins or of the kind of faith in etymology that underlies many of these essays.

Etymologically derived from the Portuguese crioulo and the Spanish criollo, creole referred to a "slave born in his master's house" (from the Latin verb criar, "to breed," but also "to bring up"), and was first used in the seventeenth century to describe the products of the New World. Marking geographical, not racial, difference it referred to those born in the Americas; thus, a Spanish couple could have one child born in Spain and one born in the New World and the former would be European and the latter would be creole. This classification, which resembles Linnaeus's system for distinguishing plant life from the New World, was also used to distinguish between slaves born in the Americas and "Guinea" slaves born in Africa. With the demise of the slave trade in the Caribbean and the reduction of the European population in the nineteenth century, the term came to be associated with a largely black...

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