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Journal of American Folklore 116.459 (2003) 4-8

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Creolization and Folklore— Cultural Creativity in Process

Robert Baron and Ana C. Cara

CREOLIZATION IS CULTURAL CREATIVITY in process. When cultures come into contact, expressive forms and performances emerge from their encounter, embodying the sources that shape them, yet constituting new and different entities. Fluid in their adaptation to changing circumstances and open to multiple meanings, creole forms are expressions of culture in transition and transformation. Traditionally associated with the new New World cultures of Caribbean and Latin American creole societies, creolization is now increasingly viewed as a universal process that could occur anywhere cultures encounter one another.

The concept of creolization was first formulated through the study of languages in colonial situations—especially in the Americas—where people who met speaking mutually unintelligible tongues began to communicate in vernacular pidgins, eventually creating new creole languages. The idea of creolization as a concept, then, found resonance in broader cultural and political concerns. The emergence of new languages, deeply expressive of their corresponding new cultures, pointed not only to new cultural forms but to new power relations and aesthetic dimensions. Creole languages and cultures expressed a new way of being in the world, distinct from ways imposed by dominant or colonizing forces upon deterritorialized peoples. Beyond language, the study of creolization developed into a critical term for conceptualizing the emergence of cultural phenomena borne out of the necessity to rise above dominance through asserting the local voice.

Creole forms are never static. They are at no time fully formed; their protean nature continuously adjusts to their immediate interactive context, often improvising as they adjust. Creolization can thus liberate us conceptually from a notion of fixed or "finished" products in culture to a focus on cultures in transition, allowing us to grasp the "in-betweens," the ambiguous spaces, where cultural boundaries blur and disappear as hierarchical categories collapse into each other. At these interstices in creole societies, native cultural entities combine, recombine, and reemerge, creating creole expressions that defy external analytical categories that place creolity at the margins.

This dynamism in creole communities, and the absence of absolute cultural transparency in favor of fluidity, blurring, and obfuscation, has frequently led to the characterization [End Page 4] of creole forms and behavior by outsiders as "impure." Too often, creole expressions have been viewed as manifestations of fragmentation and degeneration, thereby suffering in comparison to the supposedly fully formed, reified, historically sanctioned expressions of a colonial or "westernized" elite. In sharp contrast, creolists see creolization as creative disorder, as a poetic chaos, thereby challenging simplistic and static notions of center and periphery. The cultural and critical lens of creolization, in other words, allows us to see not simply "hybrids" of limited fluidity, but new cultures in the making.

Creolization is most vividly manifested and represented in the expressive forms and artistic behaviors of everyday and ceremonial life as folklore. The actuality of creole folklore in lived experience demonstrates that creolization is not an artificial construct, singularly imposed from above by the nation state. Everywhere you look in the Caribbean, much of Latin America, and in the southwest Indian Ocean region, you will find creolized musics, foods, hairstyles, verbal arts, sports, dances, customary behaviors, belief systems, rituals, ceremonies, festivals, material culture, and so much more, thereby rendering idle the question, "Why study creolization?" Jazz, salsa, or calypso, ways of worshipping and making sense of the world through Santeria or Vodoun, Old World pastries filled with New World fruits and creole gumbos, the tango, the mambo, the samba, architecture informed by gothic and baroque models rendered in tropical versions, not to mention the emergence of formerly unheard languages and the verbal art it produces only begins to eloquently answer this question. To begin to name all of the expressive manifestations of creolity would fail as an enterprise.

In the expressive interaction shaping creole forms, certain strategies are put into play which characterize creole intercourse: reversals, carnivalization, improvisation, mimicry, double-talk, feigned submission, and many other maneuvers, tactics, and schemes designed to...


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