Thursday, May 5, 2022

Born of "Elite" White Reactionism?: Assessing Claims about the Rise of Cajun Ethnicity

This essay is one of four in which I address current issues in Cajun and Creole studies. The other essays can be found here.

I wrote these works not only as a historian, but as someone who identifies as both a Cajun and a Creole. As I note in one of these essays, “[M]any of my ancestors were Creoles of French heritage. My own family tree abounds with tell-tale Creole surnames: de la Morandière, Soileau, de la Pointe, Fuselier de la Claire, Brignac, Bordelon, de Livaudais, and others. . . . As such, I could, if I chose to do so (and sometimes I do), identify as Creole — doubly so because Cajuns themselves are to begin with a kind of Creole.”

And as I write elsewhere in this blog, “[I]t is my hope these essays will somehow, in their own small way, assist the field of Cajun and Creole studies by engaging in, and spurring on, the marketplace of competing ideas — which is, after all, how scholarship works or ought to work.”

I trust those with whom I express disagreement will accept this critique in the collegial spirit it is intended.

I thank Dr. Barry Jean Ancelet, Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, Dr. David Cheramie, independent researcher Don Arceneaux, and former CODOFIL president Warren A. Perrin for proofing the below essay and offering their insights.

To clarify the thrust of the below essay: I do not seek to counter general assertions that the Louisiana state agency CODOFIL, either purposely or by neglect, excluded Creoles of African descent from its cultural, economic, and touristic mission. Rather, I seek to counter the very specific assertion that CODOFIL conspired to exclude Creoles of African descent by creating in or after 1968 a new, White ethnic identity called Cajun.


"Family of Cajun farmer living near New Iberia,"
by Russel Lee, 1938, 
Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


A handful of scholars and activists have claimed or strongly implied that Cajuns are something less than a bona fide ethnic group. Confusing the rise of Cajun ethnicity (which occurred in the 1800s) with the rise of the Cajun pride movement (which occurred in the 1960s), they allege the group coalesced only a few decades ago — in the ‘60s or later. As one source asserts, “Cajun identity emerged in post-Vietnam Louisiana,” adding elsewhere “Cajun is a new identity. . . an identity from the 1960s onward.” A sociolinguist who embraces this assessment contends it reveals “the ideological roots of the Cajun movement among white reactionary responses to civil rights.”(1) In other words, not only are Cajuns a recent ethnic group, little more than five decades old, but they originated as an expression of overt White supremacy. 

An early source for this claim is a French Canadian geographer who in 1991 stated, referring to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), a state-funded French education group launched in 1968:

Despite the fact that the Creole identity had always carried a positive image for white and black francophones of Southern Louisiana, it is under the Cajun label that CODOFIL proceeded to unify the region. This choice can only be interpreted as the desire for the French Louisiana elite to assure for the region a “white” identity. . . .(2) 


CODOFIL logo.

The implication that Cajuns are less than a bona fide ethnic group hinges on the claim (to cite the aforementioned sociolinguist) that “the Cajun movement” sought through CODOFIL to recast “Louisiana’s white population as a marginalized group under the ‘Cajun’ label.”

But is this true?

Did a White “French Louisiana elite” conspire in the late 1960s to construct a new ethnic identity called “Cajun” for the purpose of excluding Creoles of African heritage?

The argument is, to say the least, dubious, partly because there is no real primary-source evidence to support it. (If there is, what is it?) Moreover, by CODOFIL’s birth in 1968 Cajuns had long been recognized as a viable Louisiana ethnic group — either, depending on the source, an entirely separate Acadian-derived people or (as I believe) a partly Acadian-derived subset of the larger Creole population. Thus, for example, The Indianapolis Journal observed in 1898, “[A] large element of the French population of the State [of Louisiana] are not creoles, but Acadians, or, as they call themselves and are generally called, ‘Cajuns.’” Conversely, the San Francisco Chronicle noted a little over a decade earlier (in 1887), “The Americans, and even the Creoles, have corrupted the name Acadian into ‘Cajun,’ . . . [and] as ‘Cajuns,’ they are known all over the state. They are, in fact, Creoles.” Clearly, one of these late 19th-century sources viewed the Cajuns as Creoles, one did not; both, however, regarded the population as a living ethnic group “generally called” and “known all over the state” as Cajuns.(4)

These examples and many others from the late 19th century onward prove that Cajun ethnicity did not suddenly materialize from nothingness after CODOFIL’s birth in 1968.(5)



Title page,
Carver's 1926 drama.

In fact, anthropologist Jacques Henry and I, among others, have found primary-source references to the ethnic group as early as 1851 using the French term Cadien and as early as 1862 using the English form Cajun (not to mention other mid- to late-19th-century spellings like Cadjin).(6) 


Title card from the 1942 Columbia Pictures
short documentary Cajuns of the Teche.
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

After the Civil War the term appears with growing frequency in a variety of source material — the late 19th-century fiction of George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin; the title of Ada Jack Carver’s 1926 prize-winning drama; the subject of a 1942 Columbia Pictures short documentary; the nose art of World War II U.S. aircraft; and the name of a mid-1950s sounding rocket used by NASA’s precursor, to name only a few. (For more about historical “Cajun” references, see my article here.)


Homage to Cajun beauty: 
the B-29 bomber Cajun Queen,
in Asia or the Pacific, WWII.
Source: author's collection

Then there is the claim that the French revival movement advanced by CODOFIL was pro-Cajun. CODOFIL’s founding can certainly be viewed as an expression of Cajun pride and empowerment. Many of its original legislative supporters, for example, identified as Cajuns, as did many of its inaugural members. Moreover, CODOFIL often responded to perceived affronts to the Cajun people.

In reality, however, the organization at once took on a much broader mission: promoting continental French in Louisiana — the French of the Académie Française. Indeed, the bill creating CODOFIL made no mention of Acadians, Cajuns, or Cajun French — nor, tellingly, do the minutes of CODOFIL’s first executive meeting, held in October 1968. Those minutes refer only to the goal of advancing “French” and “Louisiana French.”(7)


Excerpt, minutes of 1st CODOFIL meeting,
October 1968.
Source: UL Lafayette Archives


Furthermore, claims that CODOFIL sought to exclusively preserve or promote Cajun culture are undercut by its long-serving president’s open scorn for Cajun French. That president, James R. “Jimmie” Domengeaux, publicly revealed his disdain for the dialect when, for instance, he aggressively suppressed Cajun French I, a textbook prepared by local Cajun educator James Donald Faulk.


Jimmie Domengeaux,
shown the year of CODOFIL's birth.

Source: La Louisiane, September 1968
(film, 15 mins. 2 secs.),

ORTF, France

Domengeaux squelched the book even as many language educators in the state considered Cajun French I well-intentioned if flawed (in large part because it rendered Cajun French in an English-based phonetic code while omitting conventional French spelling).(8) As I remarked in my dissertation and subsequent book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003):

Domengeaux opposed [Faulk’s textbook] simply because he despised Cajun French, and a bitter public feud erupted when CODOFIL’s leader dismissed the textbook as “a bunch of chicken scratches.” Faulk fired back, “All the Cajun people are for me. They hate his guts.” Domengeaux ultimately succeeded in blocking the use of Faulk’s textbook in classrooms — but in doing so he caused a public relations disaster. The media depicted CODOFIL as an anti-Cajun Goliath, a charge that had been levied for years by some grassroots activists. Newspaper headlines reinforced this perception: “CODOFIL Chief Trying to Block Cajun French Book,” “CODOFIL Frowns on Cajun French Textbook,” “CODOFIL Versus Local Man.” . . .

Faulk's Cajun French I (1977).

I continued:

Domengeaux further damaged the French preservation movement when during the Faulk affair he told a United Press International journalist that Cajun French was “worse than redneck English.” An Associated Press reporter attributed a similar remark to Domengeaux a year later, when esteemed Columbia University folklorist Alan Lomax criticized CODOFIL’s use of imported French instructors. Moreover, Domengeaux defended his practice of hiring foreign instructors by asserting, “They can speak French better than any damn Louisianian.”(9)

Given this, it hardly seems likely Domengeaux conspired with other elites to elevate Cajuns and their dialect, either to exclude Creoles or for any other reason.


Domengeaux speaking to Creoles in French.
Source: La Louisiane, September 1968
(film, 15 mins. 2 secs.),

ORTF, France

Although unrelated to CODOFIL’s activities, it is an unfortunate truth that for years the term “Cajun” has been applied to many things decidedly non-Cajun, including things actually “Creole” (a subject I address here). This practice understandably perturbs Creoles. It may surprise some, however, that this blanket use of the term also perturbs Cajuns — especially when those faux attributions are of a ridiculous “New Orleans-style Cajun pizza” variety, to quote folklorist and linguist Barry Jean Ancelet. As Cajun musician and grassroots activist Dewey Balfa once lamented, “Cajun is being so commercialized. Someday it’s going to be too much, if it ain’t already.”(10)


Example of an odd "Cajun" product.

Rather than blame the slapdash use of “Cajun” on a cabal of White French-speaking elites and their acolytes, would it not make more sense to blame, say, the media and hospitality industries, the latter of which includes the tourism and culinary fields? These economic sectors certainly had the motive (revenue) and the influence (national and local radio, television, and print ads — not to mention restaurant menus) to stress “Cajun” at the expense of “Creole.” But perhaps those industries did not “choose” between “Cajun” and “Creole” at all, but merely used “Cajun,” trendy catchword as it became in the 1980s, out of ignorance? Or perhaps they seized on “Cajun” because they worried “Creole” — a nebulous term to some that can spark confusion and debate — would baffle uninitiated consumers?



I trace the "Cajun craze"
in my 2004 book.

I, however, believe a more likely culprit for the ubiquity of the “Cajun” label might be found in a pervasive force beyond anyone’s real control — namely, the currents of American pop culture. Since the “Cajun craze” of the 1980s (sparked, oddly enough, by a culinary phenomenon called blackened red fish), pop culture has demonstrated an amazing ability to conjure up the word “Cajun” in some truly bizarre ways. As I observed in my Americanization book: 

Something peculiar happened to Cajun culture in the late twentieth century. Once derided as backward, it suddenly became associated with words like “hot,” “chic,” and “trendy.” Mainstream society not only discovered Cajun culture, it embraced it, usurped it, and reshaped it almost beyond recognition. . . . A soft drink company in north Louisiana hawked Cajun Cola. A condiment manufacturer in Arizona introduced Ass Kickin’ Cajun Hot Sauce. A mollusk farm in Oregon marketed “Cajun-Style” Kitchen-Sliced Slugs. . . . Country star Ricky Skaggs reached the Billboard Top Ten with “Cajun Moon,” British pop band Adam and the Ants sang about “Cajun Twisters,” and heavy metal rock group Exodus recorded a tune called “Cajun Hell.” . . . Cookbooks appeared with strange titles like Microwave Cajun Country Cookbook, Cajun Vegetarian Cooking, and Kosher Cajun Cookbook. . . . Marvel comics added a Cajun super hero, Gambit, to its pantheon of crime fighters like Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, and Captain America. Meanwhile, hack writers issued cheap romance novels with titles like Cajun Rose, Cajun Summer, and Cajun Caress. Even the underworld of hardcore pornography exploited the Cajun frenzy. . . .(11)

Those espousing the “French Louisiana elite” theory do, it must be admitted, cite one piece of circumstantial evidence for dubbing “the Cajun movement” a “White reactionary” effort born of racism. That circumstantial evidence: CODOFIL’s president, the aforementioned James R. “Jimmie” Domengeaux, made racist statements.

Which is true.

Domengeaux, however, was one man; and one man alone does not make a movement.(12)

In fact, one of Domengeaux’s closest allies in CODOFIL’s French revival effort was Dr. Raymond S. Rodgers, a non-Cajun northerner, Columbia graduate, and University of Southwestern Louisiana political science professor. Embracing the 1960s counterculture, Rodgers belonged to the local anti-racist Human Relations Council (which met in his Lafayette residence), openly criticized local conservatives, and identified his own political philosophy (to quote Rodgers himself) as “racial liberalism.”(13)


Raymond S. Rodgers, ca. 1973.
Source: City of Vancouver Archives
(Vancouver Sun/Pacific Press)

Another inaugural CODOFIL member was Haitian-born Creole educator Dr. Roch Mirabeau, director of the non-English language program at historically Black Southern University. Then there were Mirabeau’s fellow progressive-minded CODOFIL members: USL language professor Dr. Hosea Phillips; USL political science professor Dr. Philip F. Dur; state foreign language specialist and high-school language educator Audrey Babineaux George; Athénée Louisianais literary society president James Bezou; USL college student and future language professor Ginette Baillargeon; Cajun and Creole music activists Paul Tate and Revon Reed, the latter of whom worked closely with renowned Creole musicians Bois-Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot.(14)


La Musique Creole, originally issued 1974,
with liner notes by CODOFIL member Revon Reed.

These hardly seem like “White reactionaries” bent on segregating Louisiana’s Black and mixed-race Creoles from their White counterparts. This is not to say that some early CODOFIL members were not reactionaries. Domengeaux, Roy Theriot, and C. J. “Bobby” Dugas, for example, could certainly be illiberal.(15) And no doubt some CODOFIL members viewed the organization as a negative counter to the civil rights movement — but one should avoid broad-brushing an entire organization (and movement) based on the attributes of only a few members. Many involved with CODOFIL, such as the aforesaid progressives, did not recoil from the civil rights movement. Some even embraced it. Ancelet, for example, recalls of young CODOFIL-linked scholars who like himself came of age in the late 1960s and early ‘70s: “[M]any of our generation of 'activists' insisted consistently on including Cajuns and Creoles in our considerations. We deliberately included all angles of the Louisiana French experience out of a desire to be thorough. We also worked actively against efforts to disparage or exclude any part of the mix from the whole story.”(16)


One of Barry Jean Ancelet's books.

Indeed, the rise of CODOFIL is properly viewed not as a localized south Louisiana event that occurred in a vacuum, but as part of a national upsurge in ethnic pride and empowerment taking its cue from the Black-led civil rights movement. As I wrote in Americanization:

[T]he 1960s . . . exerted a major impact on ethnic groups across America. A new “Age of Ethnicity” developed in reaction to the Anglo-conformism of previous times, as minorities demanded their rights and honored their heritage. This trend grew out of the civil rights and black power movements, as well as the counterculture, all of which had declared war on traditional attitudes. . . . By 1970 Newsweek declared “ethnic power” a “rising cry” among the American people.(17)

A remarkable irony, however, is that while no primary-source evidence exists of White “French Louisiana elites” conspiring in the late 1960s per CODOFIL or any other organization to exclude Creoles of African heritage, there is evidence of Creole elites excluding Cajuns from their society.


Brasseaux's 1987 book,
The Founding of New Acadia.


These were 19th-century White Creoles, but Creoles nonetheless. As historian Carl A. Brasseaux observed in The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, “Creole-Acadian tensions were compounded . . . by the [Creole] aristocracy’s growing conviction that its less affluent and less ambitious neighbors were a crass and uncultured people, whose standards of conduct must be altered to meet Creole standards of behavior. . . .” Similarly, educator Shields McIlwaine noted of the Creole attitude toward Cajuns: “[T]he 'descendants of Evangeline' . . . had been, as Cable said, 'the jest of the proud Creole' — the French aristocracy, who often had a word for the poorer Cajuns: 'Canaille!' — that was their way of saying poor-white trash.”(18)

This anti-Cajun classism among Creoles is evident in the primary-source record. In 1901, for instance, an observer noted:

There is still a disposition to look with contempt on the Acadian on the part of some. . . . [T]he creole regards it as the greatest indignity to mistake him for an Acadian.(19)

Similarly, in 1898 a journalist affirmed:

The creoles, many of whom boast of the bluest of the blue blood, have always treated their plebeian fellow countrymen [the Cajuns] with a good-natured contempt (which the Cajuns bitterly resent) and have so far done nothing for their social or mental advancement.(20)


Source: The Indianapolis Journal, 28 January 1898.

The Yale Literary Magazine remarked in 1889 of a noted Louisiana writer’s depiction of Cajuns:

[O]n the faintly undulating prairies of Opelousas, live another people of French ancestry, the descendants of the Acadians who were driven from Nova Scotia. The Creoles look down upon these home-living country-folk. . . .(21)

And an 1881 federal census study maintained (referring overtly to the issue of exclusion):

The Creoles proper will not share their distinction with the native descendants of those worthy Acadian exiles who . . . found refuge in Louisiana. These remain “cadjiens” or “cajuns”. . . .(22) 

Nevertheless — I contend it is best for all parties to cast off acrimony about one group excluding another. After all, is it not the very nature of racial and ethnic groups to exclude others? As pioneer sociologist Fredrik Barth asserted, “[T]he ethnic boundary . . . defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses. . . . [The boundary] entails criteria for determining membership and ways of signalling membership and exclusion” [Barth’s emphasis].(23)


Barth's 1969 classic
study of ethnicity.

Instead, I suggest that Cajuns and Creoles (of all colors) should work together for their mutual benefit, as some have indeed been doing for decades. I urge this even more so because in south Louisiana the word Creole often denotes, in its broadest sense, a native-born person of French-speaking, Roman-Catholic heritage, regardless of skin color . . . a description clearly embracing those who identify as Cajuns.

In short, Cajuns are Creoles (as I discuss here).


Books about Cajuns
and other types of Creoles.

Yet the charge, unsupported by primary-source evidence, that a “French Louisiana elite” conspired against Creoles of African heritage to benefit a new identity dubbed Cajun raises vital questions for scholars and activists. For instance, cannot Creoles be appreciated, and their language, history, and culture admired (as they ought to be), without denigrating Cajuns? The same Cajuns who for so long have lived among the Creoles, and between whom so much cross-cultural borrowing has occurred, in both directions, that it is impossible to imagine one group without the other?

It similarly might be asked: is it ever acceptable for scholars and activists to advocate for one racial or ethnic group at the expense of another? I do not mean choosing to study or to devote oneself to one group and not another. Rather, I mean to actively champion one group by demeaning another.

Beyond this, however, looms what I consider a much more significant issue: namely, what are the moral implications for scholars and activists who insist that a living, thriving ethnic group — one found in the historical record for over a century and a half — is illegitimate, even in a sense non-existent? Who tell a people its dialect is fictitious and thus unworthy of study — or as one of these scholar-activists recently claimed, and rather flippantly at that, “the label ‘Cajun French’ is unsuitable for academic research. . . .”(24)

In today’s moral climate, which calls on us to respect professed identities and to spurn attempts at racial and ethnic erasure, is it appropriate to tell Cajuns: “Your label is wrong — your story is untrue — you do not exist”? 

Those who seek to advance the study of racial and ethnic groups should, I assert, respect those communities’ beliefs — not deride them or, worse, seek to supplant them with their own, perhaps doctrinaire beliefs. The fact of the matter is, there are over a hundred thousand people, largely in south Louisiana and east Texas, who identify as “Cajuns”; and who consider “Cajun French” — a term Ancelet regards as rightly denoting Louisiana French when spoken by Cajuns — as their traditional tongue.(25) These proud, self-aware people are not going away, nor are they likely to respond (certainly not affably) to claims they and their dialect are illegitimate and deserving of erasure.



Notes

(1) Christophe Landry, “Basic Louisiana History & The Acadian(A) [sic] Flag Debacle, 15 August 2018, Louisiana Historic & Cultural Vistas, www.mylhcv.com/basic-louisiana-history-the-acadiana-flag-debacle/, accessed 11 May 2022; ________, “Crawfish, Cajuns And Acadians, 4 June 2018, www.mylhcv.com/myth-making-acadians-louisiana-cajuns/, accessed 11 May 2022; Oliver Mayeux, “Language Revitalization, Race, and Resistance in Creole Louisiana,” in Louisiana Creole Peoplehood: Afro-Indigeneity and Community, ed. Rain Prud’homme-Cranford et al. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022), 144. 

See, for example, Jules Bentley, “Blanc Like Me: Cajuns Vs. Whiteness,” July 2019, Antigravity, antigravitymagazine.com/feature/blanc-like-me-cajuns-vs-whiteness/, accessed 2 May 2022; Alexandra Giancarlo, “‘Don’t Call Me a Cajun!’: Race and Representation in Louisiana’s Acadiana Region,” Journal of Cultural Geography 36, No. 1 (2018): 23-48, accessed per www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08873631.2018.1500088, 14 September 2020; Nicholas Adam Tate, “Cultural Commodification, Homogenization, Exclusion, and the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana,” master's thesis, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Spring 2021, www.proquest.com/openview/aca17bafcf3d2682bceb89e206843ef2, accessed 23 May 2022.

See also my essay “Thoughts on Cajuns and ‘Whiteness,’” blog article

Interestingly, Tate concluded that There is no evidence in the CODOFIL archives to suggest that CODOFIL intentionally sought to exclude Creoles of Color from the Louisiana French Movement or from participating in programs or policies. Rather, Tate asserts that CODOFIL unintentionally excluded Creoles of African heritage who, however, also excluded themselves as a means to maintain their distinct culture and francophone identity.” Tate, “Cultural Commodification,” 59, 69.

(2) Cécyle Trépanier, “The Cajunization of French Louisiana: Forging a Regional Identity,” The Geographical Journal 157 (July 1991): 164.

Trépanier drew heavily on the work of Eric Waddell. See E. Waddell, “La Louisiane française: une poste outre-frontière de l’Amérique française ou un autre pays et une autre culture?” Cahiers de géographie du Québec 23 (September 1979): 199–215, accessed per the website of the International DOI [Digital Object Identifier] Foundation, doi.org/10.7202/021434ar, 29 April 2022.

I disagree with Trépaniers unnuanced assertion that “the beautification of the Cajun identity began to take place in the late 1960s” (p. 161). What began to take place in the 1960s was the rise of Cajun pride and empowerment as a movement. Prior to that decade, however, Cajun identity (which long predated the 1960s) had never been uniformly viewed as sullied and therefore in need of beautification. As I note elsewhere, early appearances of the word Cajun “include not only negative, but neutral and positive occurrences” (despite occasional present-day claims that Cajun had been used solely as a negative term prior to the late 1960s). Thus we see positive historic declarations such as Cadiens . . the true name of this valiant population” (1877) and those worthy Acadian exiles who . . . [are called] cadjiens or cajuns. . .” (1881). (This partly explains why we find more than one or two U.S. aircraft in World War II bearing the loving nickname Cajun on their fuselages — about a quarter-century before Trépanier claims the identity it stood for began to be beautified.) Source: see my essay “Notes on the Birth of Cajun Ethnic Identity, blog article.


The Little Cajun in WWII,
a literal homage to Cajun beauty.
Source: author's collection

(3) Mayeux, “Language Revitalization,” 147.

(4) “The ‘Cajuns’ of Louisiana,” Dallas (Tex.) News, reprinted in The Indianapolis Journal, 28 January 1898, 7; “The Acadians: A Picturesque People Unchanged by Time,” San Francisco Chronicle, reprinted in The Abbeville (S.C.) Press and Banner, 29 June 1887, 7.

Some critics might assert that while, yes, the word “Cajun” did exist in abundance between the 1860s and the late 1960s, it was never used as an ethnic label, only as classist term for all poor white French-speakers regardless of ethnicity. Such classist usage does exist in the historical record, but so do many clear instances of Cajun as an ethnic label. An 1898 source, for example, described Cajuns as the descendants of the exiled Acadians; an 1881 source called them the native descendants of those worthy Acadian exiles; and so on. Thus, to assert that Cajun was never used early on as an ethnic label is false. See T. W. Poole, Some Late Words about Louisiana (New Orleans: E. Marchand, 1889), 26; George E. Waring Jr. and George W. Cable, History and Present Condition of New Orleans, Louisiana: Social Statistics of Cities, Tenth Census of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1881), 10.


A 1955 ad for a New Iberia restaurant:
“Cajun ethnicity did not suddenly materialize
from nothingness after CODOFIL’s birth in 1968.”
Source: author's collection.

Regarding this same topic of Cajun ethnicity, historian Carl A. Brasseaux notes, Eighteenth-century writers — and mainstream historians of the past 150 years — have clearly established that the French colonists of the Bay of Fundy Basin had forged a new, collective ethnic identity as Acadians long before their expulsion from Canada in 1755. . . . During the ensuing years of exile and wandering, the Acadians were universally regarded by their reluctant hosts as a distinct people with a common ethnic identity. That identity clearly remained intact after successive waves of surviving Acadians made their way to Louisiana between 1764 and 1788. At the time of their arrival and for decades afterward, the exiles' ethnicity was clearly and unequivocally recognized by established Louisianians, including proto-Creoles, who clearly viewed the immigrants as the 'other'. Indeed, as low-class, insolent, and often combative interlopers. The resulting acrimonious relationship between the two groups, based on socio-economic, linguistic, cultural differences and divergent, incompatible world views remained intact as the two groups evolved and matured side-by-side in southern Louisiana over the following two-and-a-half centuries. Ethnic identities remained stable even as ethnic labels changed in response to the region's evolving general linguistic landscape, in which Acadien (ca. 1764) morphed into Cadien (ca. 1770-ca. 1850), and, finally, Cajun (ca. 1850). . . . Contemporary writers clearly recognized that the two communities were separate and distinct throughout this evolutionary process. This does not mean that, after centuries of evolutionary adaptation to the same physical and cultural landscapes, there were not similarities. . . .” Carl A. Brasseaux, Lafayette, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 9 May 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard.

(5) Nor is it a case of “Cajuns” suddenly “becoming White” in 1968 or thereafter. With very few exceptions (and there are a few), historical primary-source documents refer to the Cajuns and their Acadian ancestors as “White.” See Bernard, “Cajuns and ‘Whiteness,’” blog article.

Those asserting a recent Cajun ethnogenesis fondly quote an anonymous Creole elder of Breaux Bridge who once averred, “We were called Creoles before this Cajun business” — as though this statement, subject to interpretation, were a self-evident absolute truth, unopposed by various other sources, including the memories of the Cajun people themselves. (The “we” in this quotation has been variously interpreted to mean either “Creoles of African descent” or, more broadly, “all Creoles, regardless of skin color or heritage.” Rendered in its original tongue, the statement is “On s’appelait des Creoles avant cette affaire de Cadjin.”)

See Trépanier, “Cajunization,” 167.

(6) Jacques Henry, “From Acadien to Cajun to Cadien: Ethnic Labelization and Construction of Identity,” Journal of American Ethnic History 17 (Summer, 1998): 29-62.

(7) Minutes, CODOFIL Meeting, 27 October 1968, TD, Clyde L. Rougeou Papers, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Archives, Dupré Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, La 

(8) Barry Jean Ancelet, Scott, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 6 May 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard.

(9) Shane K. Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 126-27.

(10) Barry Jean Ancelet, “From Evangeline Hot Sauce to Cajun Ice: Signs of Ethnicity in South Louisiana,” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, 1996, reprinted on Folklife in Louisiana, www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/main_misc_hot_sauce.html, accessed 30 April 2022; Bernard, Americanization, 113.

(11) Bernard, Americanization, 112-13.

(12) Mayeux, “Language Revitalization,” 146. One should not, like Mayeux, confuse CODOFIL president James R. Domengeaux [1907–1988] with his extant nephew James H. Domengeaux [1959–]. It was the latter, the nephew, who wrote the Louisiana Law Review article “Native-Born Acadians and the Equality Ideal,” which asserted that pre-existing state and federal laws protect Cajuns from ethnic discrimination. See James Harvey Domengeaux, “Native-Born Acadians and the Equality Ideal,” Louisiana Law Review 46 (July 1986): 1151-1195, accessible at digitalcommons.law.lsu.edu/lalrev/vol46/iss6/3.

According to Ancelet, CODOFIL president James R. Domengeaux actually had no middle name, but at some point began to be attributed as “James R. Domengeaux,” which had in fact been his father’s name (the middle initial standing for “Rudolph”). James Domengeaux obituary, 12 April 1988, “United States, GenealogyBank Obituaries, 1980-2014,” FamilySearch.org, familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QKRT-K28B, accessed 1 May 2022; Barry Jean Ancelet, Scott, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 27 April 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard.

(13) Bernard, Americanization, 88-89, 98-99.

(14) Minutes, CODOFIL Meeting; Barry Jean Ancelet, Scott, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 20 April 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard; Barry Jean Ancelet, Scott, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 26 April 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard.

(15) Bernard, Americanization, 58, 74, 77.

(16) Barry Jean Ancelet, Scott, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 5 May 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard.

(17) Bernard, Americanization, 87.

(18) Carl A. Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765-1803 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 176; Shields McIlwaine, The Southern Poor-White from Lubberland to Tobacco Road (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), 143 (italics added for the French canaille).

I do not touch in the main text on Creole-on-Creole classism, a form of discrimination Brasseaux mentions, much less Creole enslavement of other Creoles — including Creoles of African descent enslaving other Creoles of African descent. For discussion of Creole-on-Creole classism, see Carl A. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), 151-52; Carl A. Brasseaux, French, Cajun, Creole, Houma: A Primer on Francophone Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 102-3, 104-5. For discussion of Creole enslavement of Creoles, see Shane K. Bernard, Teche: A History of Louisiana’s Most Famous Bayou (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), 66; Carl A. Brasseaux, Keith P. Fontenot, and Claude F. Oubre, Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 71-2, passim.


Brasseaux's 1992 study
of Cajun ethnicity.

(19) “Louisiana Is White,” The (Phoenix, Ariz.) Arizona Republican, 19 August 1901, 1.

(20) “Louisiana Acadians,” The Paducah Daily Sun, 26 January 1898, 2; see also “The 'Cajuns' of Louisiana,” The Indianapolis Journal, 28 January 1898, 7.

(21) George A. Hurd, “The Louisiana of Cable,” The Yale Literary Magazine, April 1889, 307.

(22) George E. Waring Jr. and George W. Cable, History and Present Condition of New Orleans, Louisiana: Social Statistics of Cities, Tenth Census of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior/U.S. Government Printing Office, 1881), 10.

(23) Fredrik Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference (Waveland Press, 1998), 15.

(24) Mayeux, “Language Revitalization,” 147.

(25) The 2020 national count for persons identifying in whole or part as “Cajun” was 107,553.

In the late 1980s, however, Brasseaux estimated Louisiana’s Cajun population at 500,000 to 700,000 — figures that approximate the findings of the 1990 census, in which 432,549 Louisianians and 668,271 persons nationwide (including Louisiana) identified their heritage as “Acadian.” (I cite the 1990 U.S. Census here because it is the census whose data I analyzed for my 2000 dissertation, which became my 2003 Americanization book.)

For the purposes of this article, however, I adhere to the more conservative 2020 estimate, which counted respondents specifically identifying as “Cajun” (not “Acadian” as with the 1990 census).

“Cajun,” People Reporting Ancestry, 2020: American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates Detailed Tables (B04006), Total U.S. Population, data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=United%20States&t=Ancestry&tid=ACSDT5Y2020.B04006, accessed 2 May 2021; Brasseaux, Founding of New Acadia, 1; 1990 U.S. Census of Population; Barry Jean Ancelet, Scott, La., to Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia, La., 11 April 2022, email correspondence in the possession of Shane K. Bernard.


2 comments:

  1. Interesting discussion and the general argument is sensible. Some points to consider: Trepanier was researching "beautification" of the label Cajun within the context of ethnic revival. A byproduct of this process was some people in positions of influence or authority promoting the label Cajun with a racial angle. So although it would not be correct to argue that the label Cajun was fabricated in the 1960s by elites , one cannot ignore the role they and race played in the revival process and preference for labels. I think that Trepanier was arguing more for the latter than the former. Related to that I dont think there was any discussion of the "official" Acadiana regional designation which was a rather heavy handed play by people in power. Since Acadian and Cajun were often presented as interchangeable terms, one cannot ignore the racial component of this move in painting the region in broad strokes. Or the consternation it has caused for people who identify as Creole, especially in areas with little or no historical Acadian presence. All these are points made by Trepanier. Lastly, Domengeaux made some interesting comments about the purity of Cajuns (or maybe it he used the word Acadian) at the same time that he could be cynical of the term Cajun and Cajun culture. You might look into whether he was speaking of racial purity or the notion of a pure folk culture. If the former then it gives some insights into why he was happy to work with the label Cajun as opposed to creole when push came to shove. Given that Cajun was in far more common use than Acadian and thus Cajun was easier to sell especially to those concerned with racial identity. Even if the label Cajun was sort of a silver rather than gold medal compared to Acadian which many prefered to think of as more prestigious. Since by that time it was accepted by many that Cajun meant Acadian or strongly implied it. Safer strategy in the minds of some than creole at a time when the south was just shaking off Jim Crow.



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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, which I’m happy to post.

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