Creolization — New Orleans

Nick Spitzer, “Creolization as Cultural Continuity and Creativity in Postdiluvian New Orleans and Beyond,” Southern Spaces, Nov. 28, 2011

Nick Spitzer of Tulane — The text of this essay is from Creolization as Cultural Creativity, eds. Robert Baron and Ana C. Cara. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. Published with permission.

On the larger question of re-understanding American vernacular culture, other artists, like the well-known blues singer Taj Mahal and the rising young Louisiana Creole fiddler Cedric Watson, have independently suggested that the United States might best be understood as a “Creole nation.”27 In a Creole nation one imagines that culture is viewed as a creative creolizing process where group identities show both continuity, synthesis, and differential change, rather than the more linear culturally centric or islanded multicultural conceptions of diverse social orders. These particular artists that gave a voice to such observations are from backgrounds that reflect Creole cultural contact and transformation: Taj Mahal is of African American and British West Indian parentage; Cedric Watson claims Louisiana Creole, Mexican Spanish, Native American, and African American cultural forebears. They are connected to Creole societies of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and both are aware of the creolization in their personal identities and musical expressions.

From a more critical point of view some scholars, especially anthropologists, have debated the utility and appropriateness of even using “creolization” as a way to universally describe and interpret the processes of continuity and creativity in cultural identities, expressions, ecologies, economies, and related realms.28 A key concern raised in the discussion is that specific Creole societies often recreate either the insular and intolerant hierarchies of the former colonial metropole in the provincial setting or, as they evolve into settled ethnic communities, find ways to exclude those who do not fit into the reified mix of genealogy and cultural markers used to maintain those ethnic boundaries. Examples from New Orleans and other Louisiana Creole communities are not uncommon, and Viranjini Munasinghe describes the plight of marginalized East Indians in the colonially derived West Indies Creole communities.29


Still, we are bound by our comparative and ethnographic traditions to find ways to describe and interpret how cultural communities in the present maintain links to varied pasts—often multiple Old Worlds—and creatively address the present and future in transformations that allow for recognizable linkages between times and places. In this light, cultural creolization is a useful way to address traditional creativity in many forms, variations, and places in the world. The people called Creoles who have made that process explicit in their identity and aesthetic expressions of their culture will continue to discuss, argue, and sometimes disagree about group boundaries; and those feeling excluded from Creole groups may add to the discontent.

The question of “Who is a Creole?” will likely remain, but what has emerged as more broadly significant is that cultural creolization as a means of describing tradition, creativity, and continuity from past and present into the future of human communities is a hopeful and engaged human discourse when compared to the alternative: global monoculture and assimilation within nation-states.

New Orleans is distinctive within the United States with its Carnival, music, cuisine, and building artisanship, but shares these expressions broadly with Creole societies of the Caribbean through parallel development in the New World, African European plantation colonial sphere as well as long-term intraregional migrations. The city has long been a kind of Creole hearth of creativity and symbolic soul for America and anywhere in the world where creolization as a vernacular process creatively connecting the past to the future of community-based culture has not been made explicit. As Rebirth Brass Band leader Philip Frazier says, “Without New Orleans, there is no America.”30

Nick Spitzer on New Orleans’ Cultural History

2 thoughts on “Creolization — New Orleans”

  1. Thx for asking, it’s a longterm interest of mine! (And one that’s pretty obscure.) I first ran into the term in a musical context — a lot of our vernacular music in the US is a creolized blend of Anglo-Celtic and African American idioms — and later applied it more generally when I was studying Swedish-American immigration. (I’ll link to an abstract of a real spellbinder I wrote for the Illinois State Historical Society’s journal). I think it’s a more useful concept than the old “melting pot,” which implied, at least to my mind, an underlying assumption the dominant WASP culture was normative and ethnic cultural markers disappeared over time. I’m making kind of a New Year’s resolution to get some of my research interests off the back burner, and finding that article and posting it to the research blog was a start. Here’s a link (if I get WordPress to act right) to that abstract:


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