Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tracking the Decline of Cajun French

The history of the Cajuns in the twentieth century often touches on the subject of language — that is, the decline of Cajun French as more and more young Cajuns learned to speak English as their first and often their only language. As I wrote in my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People

As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the cultural rift between [my Bernard family’s] generations. How was it, I wondered, that after more than three hundred years in the New World, our family had suddenly lost the ability to speak French? What had occurred between my generation and that of my grandparents to bring about this significant change?
Americanization, I asserted, is what had occurred. And that Americanization was spurred along, more than any other factor, by the punishment of Cajun children for speaking French at school. As I noted:

The consequences [of punishment] were disastrous for Cajun French, pushing the dialect to the brink of extinction. For the first time [1946-1950], a minority of the ethnic group's children spoke French as their primary language. The percentage would plummet to 21 percent for those born between 1956 and 1960, a woeful decline from the 83 percent for Cajuns born at the dawn of the century. . . . [Furthermore] Among Cajuns born between 1966 and 1970 . . . only about 12 percent grew up speaking French as their primary language; for those born between 1971 and 1975, the figure dropped to about 8 percent.
I arrived at these figures by using census data — in particular, Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS), available mainly to scholars through academic institutions. PUMS offers raw census data extrapolated from 5 percent of households in specific geographic regions.

In my case, I used PUMS data to track the decline of Cajun French throughout the twentieth century. This is shown in the below chart, which I made in the 1990s and now publish for the first time.

Click to enlarge chart.

A word of caution:

The chart does not measure the percentage of Cajuns who spoke French in any given year. It does, however, measure the percentage of Cajuns who spoke French as their first language in 1990 according to their dates of birth (broken into five-year age groups).

So the chart reveals, for example, that for the five-year age group born between 1921 and 1925, approximately 76% spoke French as their first language in 1990.

(Some may wonder why I placed the dark vertical line denoting the start of the World War II era with the 1936-40 age group and not the 1941-45 age group. I did this because children born in the mid- to late 1930s would not have exhibited linguistic traits until they actually began to speak and they would not have exhibited permanent linguistic traits until they entered school at age five or six — and by that time the US would have entered World War II.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Secret CODOFIL Papers

In the mid-1990s I interviewed Cajun activist and educator Richard Guidry (d. 2008), who at one time worked for the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) — an organization founded by the state of Louisiana in 1968 “to do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization and preservation of the French language as found in the state of Louisiana for the cultural, economic and tourist[ic] benefit of the state.”

Today CODOFIL primarily helps to administer French education programs in Louisiana’s public school system.

During our interview, Guidry informed me that when he worked at CODOFIL a colleague confessed to him that she had been recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the organization. Her mission, she claimed, was to determine if CODOFIL was subversive. This notion will seem absurdly humorous to anyone who knows CODOFIL, which is hardly subversive. Innocuous, even conservative (politically and otherwise) during its infancy — but not subversive. One might as well suspect the Daughters of the American Revolution of subversion. I exaggerate only slightly.

As a historian trained to be skeptical, I neither believed nor disbelieved Guidry, though I did find his claim interesting. As such, I wrote to the FBI to request, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), any documents it possessed concerning CODOFIL or its early president, former U.S. Congressman James "Jimmy" Domengeaux (pronounced in the French manner as DUH-MAZH-ZHEE-O, much like the surname of baseball great Joe DiMaggio).

Jimmy Domengeaux in 1968.
(Source: La Louisiane [documentary], INA.fr)

Two years later, in 1998, the FBI sent me twenty-seven pages of documents concerning Domengeaux.

Cover page of Domengeaux-related documents
sent to me by the FBI.

None of these documents, however, mentioned CODOFIL. Indeed, all twenty-seven pages predated CODOFIL’s origin. And while a cover letter noted that the FBI had never maintained a file on Domengeaux, the bureau had nonetheless located these Domengeaux-related documents in files pertaining to other subjects.

Those twenty-seven pages contained a hodgepodge of information: A request to investigate policemen who allegedly violated the civil rights of campaign volunteers working for Domengeaux’s brother; an appeal by Domengeaux to locate an individual who drove a US government vehicle involved in a traffic accident; an NAACP document accusing the former congressman of “racebaiting.”

Civil Rights complaint filed in 1956 by Domengeaux
on behalf of "a well-known 'winehead.'" (FBI Archives)

I wondered, however, why the FBI had chosen to withhold from me four additional pages of documents? 

Granted, the bureau’s cover letter explained that it withheld these four pages because, among lesser reasons, they had been “specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

To be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy? What, had Domengeaux stumbled on America’s plans for the D-Day invasion of Normandy? After all, he left elected public office in the 1940s.

Request by Domengeaux in 1958 for information
on the driver of a US government vehicle
involved in an accident. (FBI Archives)

I appealed the FBI’s decision to withhold the documents — under President Clinton, under President Bush — each round of appeals taking years and never meeting with success. I was neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post, nor could I afford legal representation. “Appeal” simply meant writing letters to the FBI saying “I appeal your decision” and then waiting for an answer.

In early 2009 I again appealed the decision, but this time a new factor seemed as though it might work in my favor: Newly sworn-in President Barack Obama had issued a memorandum instructing “All agencies . . . [to] adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.” The President added, “The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

NAACP document from 1948 accusing
Domengeaux of "race-baiting." (FBI Archives)

In response to my new appeal citing the President's instructions, the FBI released the four previously withheld pages — thirteen years after I first appealed the bureau’s decision to withhold them.

And what were these documents so vital to “national defense or foreign policy”? 

Well, one of them was a clipping of a 1992 article from the French Canadian newspaper Le Devoir. That’s right — a newspaper article that anyone had been free to read since publication. The article, about a 1970 government report on the French Canadian separatist movement, made no reference to Domengeaux or CODOFIL, but it bore the intriguing title (and I translate), “CIA Also Monitoring the Acadians."

Le Devoir article about the CIA monitoring
Acadians in Canada (30 December 1992). (FBI Archives)

By “Acadians” the article did not mean Louisiana Cajuns, but their long-lost cousins in French Canada. Indeed, the only reference to Cajuns appeared toward the end of the article, when its author stated, “While many Acadians [around 1970] — including Premier of New Brunswick Louis Robichaud — were opposed to the separation [of French Canada from the rest of the nation], many others saw in the independence process an opportunity to get money [from France, I presume] to ‘develop cultural links with these original Acadians living in Maine, Massachusetts and Louisiana.’. . .” [My italics.]

Another previously withheld “secret” document (and it really was stamped “secret”) concerned Congressman Domengeaux’s 1946 request to the federal government that a French diplomat, not he, award the Order of the French Army to a south Louisiana veteran “because of his work in organizing the Maquis” (the French Resistance in World War II).

Domengeaux is mentioned toward the middle of this
1946 document in reference to a south Louisiana veteran
who was to receive a French medal. (FBI Archives)

(The FBI redacted the name of the US serviceman to receive this award. I showed the document to my acquaintance, General Robert LeBlanc of Abbeville, Louisiana, who not only had been a Domengeaux constituent, but during World War II had joined the OSS and crossed Nazi lines in France to aid the Maquis. General LeBlanc thus believed that the name redacted by the FBI was probably his own. While he did not receive the “Order of the French Army” (l’Ordre de l’Armée Française), LeBlanc had been nominated by France for the Croix de Guerre. He never received the citation, however, because of his untimely reassignment to China.)

Interestingly, one of the previously withheld pages made reference to something called the “GUARD RAIL investigation” and bore the stamp “TOP SECRET / GUARD RAIL.”

I subsequently asked the FBI for information about GUARD RAIL, but it replied that nothing could be found on the subject. 

Document from 1976 that twice mentions
"GUARD RAIL," whatever that is. (FBI Archives)

It is interesting to me, however, that in response to my request for papers concerning CODOFIL and Domengeaux, the FBI should first withhold and then send me this document about something called the “GUARD RAIL investigation.” I say this because although the document in question made no reference to CODOFIL or Domengeaux (as far as I was permitted to see), the FBI nonetheless associated GUARD RAIL with these two subjects — otherwise it would not have sent me the document. Of course, it’s possible that GUARD RAIL had nothing to do with CODOFIL or Domengeaux and that the FBI merely sent me the document by mistake. Who knows?

This undated page mentions neither Domengeaux nor CODOFIL,
but it does demonstrate that positive-thinking guru Norman Vincent Peale
took his marching orders from Joseph Goebbels. (FBI Archives)

So, what does all this mean? Does it mean that CODOFIL was a subversive organization or that the FBI once infiltrated it? 

No, it just means that the FBI was sitting on a bunch of fairly mundane papers that ultimately were of no real use to me as a historian. Regardless, they are interesting and I post a selection of them here for examination.