NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– Racial classification is everything depending on the setting, time and place. In “the Big Easy,” there is no easy definition.
Our curious tale of race begins abroad in Latin America. Historically, in Latin America, a “casta” was a term used to describe mixed-race individuals (there were even illustrated charts with varying, but subtle color distinctions). Over the years, Spain colonized the new world creating a community of indigenous peoples, Africans, spaniards and Portuguese (in the case of Brazil). The main divisions of 17th and 18th century Latin America were: Spaniard (European), Castizo (a mix of European and indigenous peoples), Meztizo (extended ingenious blood and European), Indio (Native American or indigenous), Pardo (a mix of indigenous, African and European), Mulatto (African and European), Zambo (indigenous and African), and Negro (African). As time evolved ethnicity was determined on the degree of skin color and therefore, it was possible to have people in the same family with the same racial-genetic makeup in different classifications. Latin America was racially ambiguous on the outside but with a closer look at the countries and communities, they were often afflicted with the socio-economic struggles of “colorism” on the inside. North of the Caribbean, America had a similar story of racial mixing but with a distinct difference, the “one drop rule.”
“The one drop rule generally applied to African blood. With a curious delineation, blacks and whites remained on opposite sides. Simply put, in a racially charged America, anyone with one drop of African ancestry in their DNA was black and nothing else, regardless of their phenotype. A caste system from slavery evolved, where lighter skinned blacks and darker skinned blacks were viewed and treated differently and yet, simultaneously both remained under the “one drop rule” guidelines. However, New Orleans proved to be an exceptionally unique place in terms of racial classification, where various free people of color, slaves, and Creoles had varying degrees of freedom.
Just they had done in Latin-American countries, Spaniards built a cabildo in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Outside of the cabildo, slaves were expected to operate under the cultural, and religious guidelines of the Spaniards. Inside these cabildo edifices, slaves were able to preserve some of their African culture, and social control. As slavery endured in Louisiana, through French, Spanish and American rule, New Orleans evolved a specific and hard to distinguish group defined racially and culturally; this group was called Creoles. The term “Creole” challenged the all-encompassing idea of the “one drop rule,” with terms such as mulatto, octaroon, quadroon and biracial, which specified varying degrees of African blood and skin color within an individual.
Recently, Dr. Elizabeth Rhodes was the 2018 Board Chairwoman of The Louisiana Creole Research Association Incorporated. LCRA was started 14 years ago with people who had an interest in genealogical research. Dr. Rhodes grew up with a father who identified as black and a mother who identified as Creole. Rhodes grew up identifying as Black during the age of the civil rights movement and lived in the Seventh Ward neighborhood. In 1965, Rhodes helped to integrate Dominican High School. She believes, the color lines were always there despite the presence of the terms Creole and Black, saying “we have had the identity struggles for those 300 years. We were black, even though we looked the way we did. We were all the colors of the rainbow and we hung together.”
Dr. Rhodes states, “the decedents of the intermingling of enslaved people, free persons of color, persons of Europeans of French and Spanish blood; the people born in the New World of these Old World groups, we consider to be Creole.”
The hope of the Louisiana Creole Research Association Incorporated is to develop a center of Creole research, where Creoles of color can find their past. The LCRA, currently, is housed at Xavier University. Despite humble beginnings, the Louisiana Creole Research Association has grown into a membership of almost 200. “The term Creole is kind of popular right now. It is one of those words that describes a whole bunch of things in the human spirit,” says Dr. Rhodes.
Race can be convoluted in 2019. Increasingly, more people are taking on the mantra of you are, what you define yourself to be. In different point of view, the study of Sociology, states that individuals are defined by the overall group. With this in mind, you are what you are, based on how society views and treats you. Black in America is therefore genetic, historic, cultural and uniquely categorized as an “experience.” Yet as New Orleans proves with no doubt, there are as many ways to be black as the ocean is vast. The multidude of colors and cultures of black are all beautiful.
Dr. Rhodes says, that Creole history is part of African-American history and forever a part of the country’s flavor, saying, “we want to educate people on the culture and the history of Creoles in Louisiana and in particular, Creoles of color. We want to celebrate that culture and we need to tell our own story. We don’t need anybody else to tell our story.”