Creole Defined: Not An Exact Science

It’s unexpected fun when a book title raises questions, i. e., Creole Son, my novel about painter Edgar Degas’s time in New Orleans. When people ask me to define Creole, I say it’s probably not what they think but lots more besides. Few ethnic terms are more misunderstood. The word comes from the Portuguese/Spanish criar meaning “to breed” and was applied to those born and bred outside the mother country. They were called criollos, which morphed into Creoles.

Napoleon's Josephine: Creole empress

Napoleon’s Josephine: Creole empress

The two most famous Creoles are probably Empress Josephine, born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and Simon Bolivar, a Spanish Creole born in Venezuela. Degas’s New Orleans-born mother Celestine made him half Creole. Creoles can also be of Portuguese, Italian and African descent.

These elegant Creoles of color were a major presence in antebellum New Orleans.

These elegant Creoles of color were a major presence in antebellum New Orleans.

The term “Creole of color” was commonly used in 18th-century New Orleans, but did not necessarily mean a slave. The free Creoles of color created a society of professional men, cultured women and debutante daughters who lived in fine houses, owned slaves and even plantations. Their achievements were remarkable considering they were only a few generations from slavery, but their culture was destroyed by the Civil War. In a bizarre case of race redefinition, the term Creole now only meant white. Fortunately, the end of Jim Crow laws empowered Creoles of color to reclaim their rightful identity.

The definition of Creole was  debated in the 1950s African-American press.

The definition of Creole was debated in the 1950s African-American press.

For most people, however, Creole means food. Everyone’s heard of Shrimp Creole, and Creole seasonings, mustards and sauces are in grocery stores everywhere. When I lived in New Orleans I discovered something rarely found outside Louisiana, Creole cream cheese and Creole tomatoes. The cheese is often combined with cream and sugar and served with fruit and even made into (wait for it) Creole cream cheese ice cream! The eponymous tomato is grown in Louisiana’s river parishes and is feted every June at the Creole Tomato Festival in the French Quarter. Creole is also attached to language, architecture, two breeds of pigs, sheep, tobacco, mangoes, and even paint colors. Then there’s Zydeco music, Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call and of course Elvis’s King Creole, which I believe is a wise place to stop.

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This entry was posted in antebellum, Creole, Degas, free people of color, French Quarter, New Orleans and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Creole Defined: Not An Exact Science

  1. Liz says:

    Thanks for this superb explanation of a term that can be confusing. And now you’ve introduced me to a new food: Creole tomato! Can’t wait to taste one.

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