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American Speech 78.2 (2003) 192-207
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Creoles and Cajuns:
A Portrait in Black and White
Louisiana State University
Barbara M. Horvath
University of Sydney
You know I was raised in a community where we had black and white together at that time. It was bad to call a white person a Cajun, because if you wanted to fight with another boy, you'd just call him a Cajun. Cajun was a dirty word at one time in the South. That's why I admire them so much now because, the fact that, and even us, they came a long way from being a Cajun. Cajun was considered low class, dirty and that kind of stuff. And, you know, the same as black, Cajun was discriminated against, not like us, but, they was also discriminated against because they were, you know, they were Cajun.
—An elderly Creole African American from Parks, Louisiana, 2000
Cajuns are descendants of Acadians from the province of Nova Scotia in Canada who originally settled in Louisiana between 1765 and 1785. They were French-speaking white people who had to struggle economically to survive and culturally to gain acceptance. They maintained their coherence as a separate ethnic group until the mid twentieth century, when they began to assimilate into the Anglo dominant culture. Today, their economic status has improved and the so-called Cajun Renaissance has awakened in them a pride in their ancestry and in their contribution to the unique character of Louisiana.
The ethnic identity of the black people in our study is in flux—as it has been from the earliest times. Almost all of them nowadays identify as African Americans (Dubois and Melançon 2000), but this ethnicity includes three historically distinct groups of people (Brasseaux, Fontenot, and Oubre 1994, 110). In the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries in Louisiana, persons of African ancestry were divided by skin color, wealth, land ownership, education, and even language, but these distinctions became blurred by the turn of the twentieth century. The first of these three groups were the Colored Creoles. Their ancestors were the offspring of white and black unions, were officially recognized as the children of these unions, and were free before the Civil War. Colored Creoles were socially and economically stratified: a small number were wealthy planters, many were farmers, both landowners and tenants, and many were laborers. [End Page 192] The second group were the Black Creoles, who also had ancestors who were the offspring of black and white unions, but who were slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation (111). After the Civil War they constituted an illiterate poor population of tenants and sharecroppers. Finally, the third group consisted of the descendants of unions between the French-speaking Colored Creoles or Black Creoles and English-speaking former slaves whose ancestors were brought to Louisiana from the Upper South between 1830 and 1860 during the expansion of the cotton industry. The term Creole in this essay specifically refers to African Americans who have some French ancestry, however remote. Not all of those who have French ancestry call themselves Creoles, but most agree that someone designated a Creole should have parents or grandparents who were Creoles and who spoke French. The consultants in our study speak French. Some refer to themselves as Creoles while others refer to themselves as African Americans. We will thus use the term Creole African Americans, and we will call the variety of English they speak Creole African American Vernacular English (CAAVE). 1
Brasseaux, Fontenot, and Oubre (1994, 117) mention that the Creole African American priorities of "religion (Catholics), family (both nuclear and extended), family values, and hard work mirror the values of neighboring Cajuns." However, their similarity goes beyond cultural attributes. Before the Civil War, Colored Creoles and Cajuns were farmers or fieldhands in rural communities, whose incomes were both low and uncertain. Both groups were similarly economically stratified: both included a small number of wealthy planters (the "Genteel Acadian" elite and the Colored Creole elite), some landowning farmers, and many...