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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 232-266
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"Ah Toucoutou, ye conin vous":
History and Memory in Creole New Orleans
University of Texas, Austin
IN THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, SHORTLY BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR, A WOMAN nicknamed "Toucoutou" sued her neighbor for slander. The neighbor had committed the insufferable offense of calling Toucoutou a woman of color in public. This offense did more than wound Toucoutou's pride. It also threatened her marriage to a leading white citizen, potentially rendering it null and void according to a Louisiana state law. If she were indeed a woman of color, her liaison with this white man would have been understood at the most as a "plaçage," and Toucoutou would have been not a wife, but a formalized mistress. 1 Actually, her position would have been exactly that of the neighbor who had accused her of being nègre. By instituting a slander case, Toucoutou hoped to preempt further damage to her reputation and become marked officially as white. Instead, her case failed miserably. In court, her supporting evidence unraveled bit by bit, until there was no doubt in the court's mind that she was of African descent. The Toucoutou case was a failed attempt at obtaining a secure social status as a white person, in effect a failed attempt at "passing." Ironically, this woman who used all of the resources at her disposal to prove her whiteness is remembered now, a century and a half later, only by her Creole nickname "Toucoutou." 2
Almost immediately, her case began to spawn cultural commentaries. During the period of the trial, barber and musician Joseph Beaumont, a Creole of color, penned a devastating critique of her actions and set it to music. 3 This song, "Toucoutou," mocked the woman's aspirations to whiteness, ensuring that the annoyingly repetitive [End Page 232] and catchy tune would follow her around the city and would live after her death. The story of Toucoutou continued to be pertinent in New Orleans, gaining in popularity throughout the rest of the century. By the time Creole of color activist and writer Rodolphe Desdunes wrote his community memoir Nos hommes et notre histoire (1911), he felt a certain obligation to address the legacy of Beaumont and the cultural memory of the "Toucoutou Affair." 4 A decade or so later, the cultural historian Edward Larocque Tinker picked up on Beaumont's and Desdunes's elucidation of the Toucoutou Affair. 5 One could still hear "Toucoutou" sung in the neighborhoods of New Orleans as late as the 1920s, and Tinker deemed it "probably the most cruel" of the Creole songs. In his attempt to rescue Toucoutou from "the malice or hatred of [the song's] long dead author," Tinker conducted a long search for the original court record and wrote the historical romance Toucoutou (1928). With this novel, Tinker established himself as the protector of Toucoutou's legacy. After writing the romance, Tinker buried the court records back into obscurity, insuring that those interested in the case would have to take his version of the circumstances surrounding the case as truth.
Lieux de Mémoire
Following Pierre Nora, one can understand the Toucoutou case as a lieu de mémoire, a site where "memory crystallizes and secretes itself" into the cultural consciousness of New Orleans. In his historiographical work, Nora distinguishes between two ways of conceiving the past, "history" and "memory." According to Nora, history can be understood as "an intellectual and secular production" while memory "installs remembrance within the sacred." 6 Nora describes these categories further: "Memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority." 7 The historian's attention to lieux de mémoire becomes relevant at a particular historiographical moment--when history becomes conscious of itself as a continually created narrative, as a process which itself has a history, and when memory loses its grounding in specific collectivities and rituals. "The study of...