In a recent essay I noted the understandable trend among some scholars and activists to reclaim what is Creole from the overweening, often misapplied blanket term Cajun. In another recent essay I examined the much less explicable trend of asserting, despite evidence to the contrary, that the word Cajun — and indeed the entire Cajun ethnic group — appeared only in the late 20th century.
|"Cajun sugarcane farmer with daughter, |
near New Iberia, Louisiana,"
Russell Lee, photographer (1938)
Source: Library of Congress
Another questionable claim, found recently in both academic and more journalistic or bloggish sources, concerns the "whiteness"(1) of the Cajun people. In short, some writers claim that Cajuns were not considered "white" until the 20th century and even, according to some, until the late 20th century.(2)
Historical evidence, however, does not bear out this statement, which is often presented axiomatically, with little or no primary-source documentation, as if a self-evident truth.
Granted, the historical record does contain at least a few references suggesting a certain non-white quality to the Cajun people. In 1860, for example, a widely printed newspaper article noted of the Cajuns (called "Acadians" in the piece), "[They] are a strange clannish people, resembling much in appearance and habits, the race of Gipsies [sic]." Then, in 1922, a Cajun surnamed Pitre sued a man for slander who supposedly called him "a damned dirty low-down 'Cadian' — pronouncing it 'Cajan' — and a damned half-breed n*****." This, however, is not so strong an example as it may at first seem, because the defendant convinced a judge that he had not hurled the racial epithet at the Cajun plaintiff — who described himself in court as "of the Caucasian race, of Acadian descent" — but rather at a black messenger sent on behalf of the Cajun plaintive.(3)
|Pitre v. Sacker,|
in The Southern Reporter (1922)
Another questionable example dates from 1945, when a book reviewer described a novel's fictional characters as "a poverty-stricken population of poor whites and cajuns [sic]" — arguably suggesting Cajuns were something other than "poor whites." (Perhaps poor non-whites?) There is also the occasional reference to Cajuns as non-whites that can be traced to a simple lack of cultural understanding. For instance, in 1897 an Iowan visiting south Louisiana noted, "[T]he natives, a mixture of Negro and Mexican, are called 'Cajuns' (Acadians)." (Even so, this is not so egregious an error as one by a mid-20th-century author who traced the Cajuns' ethnicity to Christian disciples in first-century Armenia!)(4)
|Decorah (Iowa) |
Public Opinion (1897)
Found more frequently, however, are references to Cajuns as separated from the mass of white people not by race, but by class. In 1866, for instance, a writer for Harper's described Cajuns as "the descendants of Canadian French settlers in Louisiana; and by dint of intermarriage [with each other] they have succeeded in getting pretty well down in the social scale. Without energy, education, or ambition, they are good representatives of the white trash." This negative classist view persisted into the modern era, when, for example, United Artists re-released a 1956 motion picture set among hostile Cajuns under the new title Poor White Trash. Again, this trend reflects a perceived class distinction, not a racial one, between Cajuns and other whites.(5)
|Ad for the Cajun-themed movie Poor White Trash,|
originally released under the title Bayou (1956 & 1961).
Turning from class back to the original issue of race: despite rare and iffy exceptions, the general trend is that others have overwhelmingly viewed Cajuns as "white." In fact, the historical record indicates that Cajuns have been considered "white" since well into the 19th-century, when their Acadian ancestors and other ethnic groups coalesced in south Louisiana to become the Cajuns.(6)
I find this unsurprising because the Cajuns' ancestors hailed primarily from Europe (mainly France, but also Germany, Spain, and elsewhere on the continent) and because Cajuns — according to commonly held standards persisting over time — "looked white" and, for all practical purposes, were "white." (At this point it is worth noting that race is increasingly viewed as an outmoded concept, one unsupported by biology or other scientific fields. This is, however, problematic for historians because, even if the idea of race is bankrupt, the concept nevertheless remains an extremely strong catalyst in historical events.)(7)
I base my assertions about Cajun "whiteness" on evidence like that found in the below list of historical references. This list makes no pretense of completeness: there are no doubt many more historical references to Cajuns as "white" remaining to be found.
Some of the below sources express negative views of Cajuns as well as overtly racist sentiments about African Americans. This unpleasant fact, however, has no bearing on the issue at hand: those benighted sources, like the more innocuous ones, nonetheless viewed Cajuns as "white." Indeed, I find it interesting that the racist sources, instead of rejecting the perhaps suspect Roman Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns as something other than "white," actually embraced them as "white." (Likewise, I believe it speaks volumes that, as historian Carl A. Brasseaux has noted of the racist White League chapters formed in postbellum south Louisiana, "Acadians [Cajuns] constituted a disproportionately large percentage of their memberships." This prompts the question, "If Cajuns were not viewed as 'white' until recently, why, then, did so many belong to this 19th-century white supremacist group?")(8)
Acadian to Cajun (1992)
Here is the list of supporting evidence for Cajun "whiteness":
"They proposed to hang the whole settlement because a colored man living there once killed a white Acadian [Cajun]." ~ "The Vigilantes of Vermilion," New Orleans Republican, reprinted in The Opelousas Journal, 21 November 1873, p. 2.
Weekly Chronicle (1884)
"The Acadians are all white . . . [and] are still a strong reminder of the old Norman stock of which they come. . . ." ~ "The Acadians," New York Telegram, reprinted in Clarksville (Tenn.) Weekly Chronicle, 3 May 1884, p. 4.
|Albert, The House of Bondage (1890).|
"Who were these 'Cadien patrollers, Uncle Stephen?' 'Why, child, they were the meanest things in creation; they were poor, low down white folks. . . .'" ~ Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage; Or, Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves [fictional work] (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1890), p. 106.
"Nearly all the white folks who trudged along the highway were Acadians. . . . and it is strange indeed to hear that we must not call them 'Cajuns to their faces. . . ." ~ Julian Ralph, "Acadians at Home," Harper's Magazine, reprinted in The Indianapolis Journal, 3 November 1893, p. 2.
|Ralph, "Acadians at Home," |
"It is a race war rather than a political fight that is now waging in St. Landry Parish in Louisiana. It is between the Acadians . . . and the negro [sic]. . . . [N]ine-tenths of the white people are Acadians, descendants of the unfortunate French settlers of Nova Scotia. They have no use for the negro, and the national [natural?] antipathy between the two races is very strong." ~ No title, Waterbury (Conn.) Evening Democrat, 17 April 1896, p. 2.
Evening Democrat (1896)
"[A]mong these white men, and forming a large portion of them, are the descendants of the Acadians who were transported from Nova Scotia to Louisiana. . . ." ~ The Sunday at Home 45 (1897), p. 408.
"But many of the best white families in Louisiana, especially the descendants of the old Acadians, keep their ancient simplicity and are unable to read." ~ "The Negro's Ballot," The (Phoenix) Arizona Republican, 22 January 1898, p. 2.
"The third class of white colonists were the Acadians, or, as they are popularly called in Louisiana today, 'Cagans.'" ~ "Whites in the Majority," The (Washington, D.C.) Times, 12 August 1901, p. 3. [Note: by "third class" the author does not mean "inferior"; he means by chance Cajuns are the third group of white Louisianians discussed in his article.]
"[T]he Acadians in Louisiana are about the most prolific white people on the globe." ~ No title, The Colfax (Wash.) Gazette, 13 September 1901, p. 4.
|Colfax (Wash.) Gazette (1901)|
"[Y]our Cajan will give a lazy ha ha, where any other white man would swear. . . ." ~ E. H. Lancaster, "The Wooing of Angela" [fictional work], The Coalville (Utah) Times, 5 December 1902, p. 3.
"[T]he negroes [sic] are being crowded out of work on the sugar plantations by white labor, such as Acadians. . . ." ~ "Negro's Critical Position in the Industrial World," The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, 7 December 1902, Section One, p. 11.
"Then there are the 'Cajuns,' white people, the descendants of the Acadians. . . ." ~ "Louisiana Sugar: Statement of Joe B. Chaffe, Representing the American Cane Growers' Association," Senate Documents, 67th Congress, 2nd Session, 1921-1922, Vol. 5, Part 3 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1922), p. 2308.
|Senate Documents (1922)|
"The whites, transported by separate barges, were Acadian farming families, chattering among themselves in a thick, unfamiliar French dialect." ~ Will Irwin, "Except for War, America Knows No Destruction Equal to That of Flood, Writes Noted Author," New Britain (Conn.) Herald, 17 May 1927, Sec. 2, p. 21.
"A majority of the white tenants are 'Cajuns.' These Cajuns are trustworthy, but as a rule are illiterate." ~ Sherrod De Floy Morehead, Merchant Credit to Farmers in Louisiana (Russellville, [Ark.?]: privately printed, 1929), p. 16.
"One of the films in the making is a story of the Cajuns, a little known group of primitive whites." ~ "Out Where the Movies Begin," (Washington, D.C.) Evening Star, 24 May 1933, p. B-12.
|(Washington, D.C.) Evening Star (1933)|
"[The Creoles] often had a word for the poorer Cajuns: 'Canaille!' — that was their way of saying poor-white trash." ~ Shields McIlwaine, The Southern Poor-White from Lubberland to Tobacco Road (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), p. 143.
"[T]he Cajuns, the Louisiana poor white descendants of Longfellow's Acadians. . . ." ~ The Journal of Negro History 34 (1949), p. 123.
(1) In this essay I use the term "whiteness" to mean "a set of characteristics and experiences generally associated with being a member of the white race and having white skin." Although I am primarily interested in this basic definition, the term "whiteness" can also refer, for example, to "the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared" and "a historically contingent and socially constructed racial category, once defined . . . by privilege and power. . . ." among other, similar definitions. Nicki Lisa Cole, "The Definition of Whiteness in American Society," ThoughtCo.com, 8 November 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/whiteness-definition-3026743, accessed 22 November 2020; "Whiteness," National Museum of African American History and Culture/Smithsonian Institution, https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/whiteness, accessed 22 November 2020; Teresa J. Guess, "The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence," Critical Sociology 32 (July 2006), p. 667, per https://www.cwu.edu/diversity/sites/cts.cwu.edu.diversity/files/documents/constructingwhiteness.pdf, accessed 22 November 2020.
I choose neither to identify nor quote the sources to which I take exception and which prompted me to write this essay. Although that practice would be requisite for an academic publication, and would in some ways strengthen my assertions, I nevertheless do not wish this discussion to involve personalities, but, rather, only issues of substance and the actual historical evidence.
(2) The word Cajun is used in this essay to refer solely to the so-named people of south Louisiana and a small portion of east Texas, not to the identically named persons of different heritage who inhabit part of Alabama and who have been described in modern scholarship as "not entirely White, Black, or Indian but [who] constitute a triracial community somewhat reproductively isolated and inbred." See W. S. Pollitzer et al., "The Cajuns of Southern Alabama: Morphology and Serology," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 47 (July 1977): pp. 1-6; the quote is from the abstract of this article found on the website of the National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/888930/, accessed 19 November 2020.
(3) "Acadians in Louisiana," The [Baltimore, Md.] Daily Exchange, 19 October 1860, p. 1; Pitre v. Sacker, 23 June 1922, Louisiana Supreme Court, No. 23387 (151 La. 1079, 92 So. 705 ), cited in Louisiana Reports, Vol. 151 (St. Paul: West Publishing, 1922), p. 1079.
(4) "A Lion in the Streets" [book review], (Washington, D.C.) Evening Star, 10 June 1945, p. C-3; Mrs. Geo. P. Bent, "From Sunny Climes," Decorah (Iowa) Public Opinion, 16 March 1897, p. 1; André Cajun [pseudonym], Why Louisiana Has. . . (New Orleans: Harmanson, 1947), p. 16-21. This volume reads, "The story of the class, or group of people in Louisiana known as 'Cajuns'[,] began the hour St. Bartholomew, a disciple [of Jesus], gave up the ghost. The location of this sad event was the ancient land of Armenia. . . ." The author goes on to state that over roughly 1,700 years a group of persecuted Christians migrated from Armenia to France, Nova Scotia, and, finally, Louisiana, where they became the Cajuns.
Why Louisiana Has. . . (1947)
(5) Shane K. Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), pp. xvii, 121. In this 2003 book I note that Cajuns were known to be reviled by local blacks as "Acadian n*****s," which would appear to be a prime example of labeling Cajuns as non-whites. On closer examination, however, I see that the original 19th-century quote states, "the n******, when they want to express contempt for one of their own race, call him [a fellow black person] an Acadian n*****." In other words, this pejorative was used as a black-on-black insult, not as an expression of Cajun non-whiteness. See A.R.W. [Alfred Rudolph Waud], "Acadians of Louisiana," Harper's Weekly, 20 October 1866, p. 670.
(6) One researcher has questioned the "whiteness" of the original Acadian exiles arriving in Louisiana, noting esteemed Yale historian John Mack Faragher's examination, in his 2006 book A Great and Noble Scheme, of "métissage" — the intermarriage of French settlers in Acadie with the indigenous Míkmaq. While it is true that Acadians and Míkmaq often produced métis offspring, it is important to avoid exaggerating the extent of this interracial mixing. Métissage played a more important role in Acadia's early history, when French male colonists turned to Native American women for companionship because of a lack of female colonists. This trend, however, became less common with the arrival of additional French women and entire French families, as well as with the coming of French priests who discouraged interracial dalliances. As Faragher himself notes, "métissage declined as colonists spent more time farming and less time trading [with Native Americans]. It was replaced by the recruitment of wayfaring Europeans." The historian further states that while in some ways the Acadians and Míkmaq were "brothers," it was nonetheless the case that "Acadians and Míkmaq maintained separate identities and separate communities. . . ." By the 1730s, Faragher observes, "Acadians and Míkmaq were no longer as close as they once had been. Métissage was increasingly rare, and the [Roman Catholic] missionary Pierre Maillard pursued a course that kept natives separate from [colonial] inhabitants." In short, while Acadians and Míkmaq were interrelated, Faragher does not go so far as to assert that the Acadians had ceased to be primarily of European extract or, for that matter, ceased to be considered by others as "white." As a French-language Louisiana newspaper, Le Louisianais, therefore stated in 1873, "Rappellons nous donc les Acadiens. Ils étaient blancs, pauvres, honnêtes et robustes. . . ." — "Let us thus remember the Acadians. They were white, poor, honest and robust" [emphasis added]. See John Mack Faragher, A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), pp. 63, 160, 203; "Local," Le Louisianais (Covent, La.), 15 February 1873, p. 1.
|Faragher's A Great |
and Noble Scheme (2006)
(7) See for example Elizabeth Kolbert, "There's No Scientific Basis for Race — It's a Made-Up Label," National Geographic, 12 March 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/#clos, accessed 19 November 2020; Megan Gannon, "Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue," Scientific American, 5 February 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/race-is-a-social-construct-scientists-argue/, accessed 19 November 2020; Melissa Rice, "Evolution and Race: Biologically, Race is No Longer an Issue, Scientific Panel Agrees," Cornell Chronicle, 11 February 2009, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2009/02/experts-biologically-race-no-longer-issue, accessed 19 November 2020; "Executive Summary: AAPA Statement on Race and Racism," American Association of Physical Anthropologists, ca. 27 March 2019, https://physanth.org/about/position-statements/aapa-statement-race-and-racism-2019/, accessed 19 November 2020.
(8) Carl A. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), 144.
There are a wide range of perspectives on the term Cajun. I think that many people are onboard with the notion that the term has been in use for a long time. However, the issue that some people have, if I understand it correctly, is that the term was often ascribed by outsiders to people who did not self-identify as such and would rather use labels such as Creole or French until recently.ReplyDelete
A agree with your comment, particularly about those identified as Cajun who do not identify as such. I wrote an article about the issue of the Cajun and Creole ethnic labels; see: https://bayoutechedispatches.blogspot.com/2019/06/of-cajuns-and-creoles-brief-historical.htmlDelete
On the other hand it appears that there are some people who do try to promote the fiction that the term Cajun didn't really exist until the establishment of CODOFIL or even later. Then when it is demonstrated how long the term has been around there is a scramble to move the goalpost in a series of "yeah, buts." Sometimes there can be a fine line between making objective research based assertions and simply repeating received opinion that supports one's own wishful thinking.ReplyDelete
I concur here, too, and while I might have quoted those sources (that claim "Cajun" is a recent invention), I did not want to make my essay about personalities and their beliefs -- which can be quite passionate -- but merely about the actual historical record.Delete
This is a useful post, Shane, especially in its references to the many primary sources you've gathered.ReplyDelete
I would add to this that, in the era of racial science (late 19th/early 20th centuries) as well as under Jim Crow (through the '50s, let's say), whiteness and its boundaries are not fixed by historical origins and physical traits alone. Thus, you have a piece written in 1920s by a social worker who expressly worries that Cajuns' proximity to Blacks presented a threatening situation, because it might lead them to regress. Many Cajuns already spoke like their Black neighbors and lived as superstitiously as them, he claimed. (He was brought to LA by the '27 flood, IIRC; Borst, Homer, "Social Work in Acadia").
Notions of evolutionary "degeneration" and "regress" (instead of "progress") were conceived explicitly in racial AND behavioral terms. Elites posited that, under the "wrong" kind of cultural influences, poor whites (like Cajuns) could evolve in the wrong direction.
More broadly, Cajuns were a constant source of consternation for authorities and other middle-class whites in 20th century LA, through the 1950s. That notorious flameout that Smith and Hitt performed on Cajuns in their "The People of Louisiana" is one example. Jim Crow was based on the premise that whites were naturally superior to Blacks. Because Cajuns wouldn't "get with the program" -- attend schools, learn English, adopt "modern" ag practices, etc.-- their whiteness was often seen as problematic. In their "backwardness" and "depravity," other whites saw them as betraying the premise of white supremacy, which grounded the social order.
In sum: from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s, I'd say that Cajuns' whiteness was not secure, so to speak.
Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Marc! I know that Smith and Hitt textbook well -- horrible! Here's something I wrote about it for others who've never seen or read that book: "For example, the state’s geography textbook, The People of Louisiana, published in 1951, described Cajuns as 'an unsophisticated agrarian people . . . slow in adopting "American" ways,' which it defined as 'the values and standards of their English-speaking neighbors.' Furthermore, the textbook linked poor educational results not to rural poverty or to isolation, but directly to Cajun culture itself: 'The educational standing of the population is lowest in those particular parts of the French section in which the Acadian influence has been the greatest.' Indeed, the textbook blamed the entire state’s educational ills on its French-speaking Cajun minority. 'More than any other factor,' it explained, 'this contributes to Louisiana’s poor national standing, just as the Spanish-speaking population of New Mexico is responsible for that state’s low ranking educationally.'" : [Delete
The first documented use of the term "Cajun" in 1862 included the assertion that the population was of mixed French and Indian ancestry. Scholars such as Dominquez and Landry have asserted that the phenomenon of people of color "Passing" into the white population dates back to the late colonial era or early Antebellum. DNA testing results have sometimes caused considerable consternation for some contemporary families in Louisiana that consider themselves to be "pure" white. So, it shouldn't be surprising that there has been past pessimism toward the whiteness of Cajuns even though there were obviously many counternarratives that emphasized whiteness at the same time. That is if one wants to use archaic one-drop notions as the basis for said pessimism.Delete
Thanks for your insights into this topic.Delete
Identifying as a Cajun/Creole I appreciated this article. The historically insulated Cajun communities of South Louisiana did not always leave opportunity for us to interact with the greater American culture to know where we "fit" racially. It is my experience of leaving Cajun communities that has made me ponder whiteness more deeply.ReplyDelete
The concept of whiteness does not seem to be a static or monolithic concept. In Whiteness of a Different Color (Jacobson), whiteness was determined by Anglos to stem immigration. Eugenics were used to separate out Nordic "races" from less desirable Alpine or Mediterranean people. The line was drawn in both public and "scientific" communities to exclude Irish, Jewish, and Italians. Those communities are obviously now considered white. I would argue, though, that the psychological division this caused (which I believe impacted Creole/Cajun communities) remained well into the 20th century.
Whiteness appears to fit the political needs of the moment (e.g. Hispanic/Latinx ethnicity has been separated in many surveys from white racial identity). There is a social benefit to having one's whiteness enhanced. While the perception of others certainly validates whiteness, there is also a person's desire to be included in the group which should be factored in. Perceived whiteness likely contributed in Cajuns' ability to broker commerce beyond our agrarian economy in the 20th. But whiteness also appears to move along a continuum, making it only exist in contrast to its perceived opposite endpoint: non-white (i.e. Black). In effect, a Cajun is definitely white when contrasted against someone who is Black, but their whiteness is likely reduced when contrasted by a person of Anglo descent and culture. Many attribute this to class as you have mentioned. But it seems difficult to parse out the context of "othering" when race and class tend to intersect in complex ways in South Louisiana (i.e. New Orleans Creoles of Color). A Cajun's liminal whiteness has always felt contextual to me.
I really appreciated this essay. It resonated with my experience of growing up Cajun and not always understanding where I racially “fit” after I left my Cajun community. It is those experiences that have made me ponder more deeply on the concept of “whiteness,” which I believe is different than white racial identity. Whiteness is not static or monolithic, but more of a political negotiation. This essay seems to prove this, citing literature that solidifies Cajun whiteness as perceived by those both inside and outside of the community.ReplyDelete
You can find current documented divisions between whiteness and white racial identity. Many surveys include questions which separate out race from Hispanic/Latinx identity. Whiteness was a moving target in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Whiteness of a Different Color (Jacobson) we see rhetoric used to question the whiteness of Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants. While this issue was rooted in anti-immigration sentiment, a debate over race ensued, separating out Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean “races.” Those groups are clearly considered white now. Whiteness did not appear as a category, but more of a spectrum whose ultimate endpoint is what is considered opposite of white…namely Black.
It is because of this I believe Cajuns have such a mixed experience with whiteness. When compared with Black folk we are clearly white. But compared with a “Nordic” person who embodies Anglo-American culture our whiteness appears diminished. To make it more complicated, our whiteness appears based on usefulness and context. An anthropologist would perceive our whiteness differently than someone who has business dealings with us. Historically insulated Cajun communities were not always thought of as the same as other white communities (hence our ethnic slur). But as others’ perception of us changed to consider us part of the greater American culture (and I argue here that this was due in large part to us switching from French to English in our daily use) then we could enjoy the social benefit of whiteness in commerce, in politics, etc. This is probably why we have historically, and continue to, engage in code switching when interfacing with other white American cultures.
I agree with you that class played a large role in the attitudes of “othering” toward Cajun people. It is apparent in the examples you provided. However, issues of race and class have complex relationships, especially in Louisiana (e.g. New Orleans Creoles of Color). I return our ethnic slur, which was race based, rather than class based. Similar to surveys separating ethnicity and race, and immigration policy being based on race, whether or not the intention was to question the whiteness of Cajuns with this slur it did not change how we experienced our place among other white communities.