CANE RIVER, La— Race is a large component of how we identify ourselves as well as how society identifies individuals. But what is race quantified? Louisiana’s story is a beautiful multi-cultural example on the structure of ethnicity.
Louisiana formed as a Tri-racial society, when the French colonized the land. At the top of the social order of the 1700’s was those of European decent, the middle comprised of those of mixed race and the bottom was comprised of those of Native American or African ancestry. The term creole originally meant, “of the America’s,” and it comprised anyone or anything that was in the New World. Over the years, the term would evolve and by the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, a new anglo Bi-racial society was adopted. The “one drop rule” would now be the new standard in racial identification. Any individual with black ancestry, was considered and treated black.
Dr. Angel Adams Parham is a sociology professor at Loyola University. She is also a historian at the Hermann-Grima House in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dr. Parham says, “when you start to get into the late 19th century, this call by white creoles saying that to be creole was to be pure white. White creoles began to blend into the white American population. Creoles of color had an opposite incentive, with the rise of Jim Crow laws that plagued black Americans after the fall of reconstruction. Some chose to identify as white and cast aside any black ancestry. Others identified as black and some identified themselves as something altogether different and distinct.”
Race is defined by Webster, as a category of humankind, where individuals share physical traits or a common phenotype. However, racial phenotype definition varies from region to region and community to community. Self identification, under sociology is limited to how the group views the individual.
“There was a famous case here in Louisiana when Suzy Guillory Phipps, went to get some official paperwork done. She had been raised as white and understood herself to be white. Her birth document had her recorded as “C” for colored. She took the case to court to get it changed and she lost her case. Through extensive genealogical work, it was shown that she had black ancestry. She was determined black. This was in 1977.”
Race is powerful and so is culture. Many residents in New Orleans identify as being creole and black. A few can trace their roots back not to New Orleans, but three hours Northwest of New Orleans to Cane River.
Thomas Roque grew up in Cane River as a “Cane River Creole” and says, “Cane River is a hidden paradise. You can come one time and I don’t care where you are from or what color you are; you are going to enjoy yourself. “I am black. I’m African American. I do have some frenchman in me. But I’m Creole! I can trace my history back to Marie Therese Coin Coin and Claud Thomas Pierre.”
Thomas and many of the creoles from Cane River, are fair complected and many at first glance could pass for being white, yet many like Thomas and his family maintain a strong black racial identity. Many of the residents in Cane River are descendants of an enslaved woman named Marie Therese Coin-Coin and a Frenchman named Louis Juchereu De St. Denis. What started on a plantation in the 1700’s, over the years grew into a vibrant community. St. Augustine Church has long been the center of Cane River. It is by extension, a symbol of Creole Society and one of the earliest churches in America founded by those of African descent.
Being gray is usually never an option in a society of black and white. Louisiana’s creole story is paramount because it is the story in how to understand the power of race America’s racial system as a whole. It is the story of “separate but equal,” in the case of Plessy vs. Fergusson and it is at the heart of why Black Lives Matter. Most importantly, it challenges and widens the defining lines of what it means to be black. What is blackness?
“We were always taught in my family, that we don’t “Passe Blanc.” A lot people in Cane river left here and they had to survive. Some were forced to “Passe Blanc.” They had to pass for white. I’m black. My culture is creole but I’m black in color and race. Most of my family went to Historically Black Colleges and we are proud of who we are. We are proud of all the components of what we are. When I check race on a job application, I’m black.”