Folk Culture and the Literary Invention of Louisiana

### Evolving Images of the Cajuns and Creoles

#### Abstract

In the wake of the “great awakening” of French culture in Louisiana, there have been numerous offerings by “natives” to represent themselves. In the early phase of the process, many of these documents were scholarly publications looking to balance an historical record which seemed unaware that Louisiana owed much of its history and culture to the Continental European and African origins of a number of groups that populated south Louisiana from the colonial era into the post-Civil War era. In the second phase of the awakening, a number of authors — most notably those writing cookbooks — began to draw upon these roots consciously, often universalizing their particular experience of south Louisiana culture and history. Also arising at this time were number of publications which consciously treated various stereotypes — I’m thinking here of joke books and memoirs. All of these texts continue to play a role in what might be called the post-renaissance, or at least the post-awakening, moment in which we now reside, where a certain kind of sophisticated cultural consumerism has come to dominate the logic of understanding. I want to argue that this is a dangerous period for us, in which we face two paths, one which encourages a kind of “free play of signs” which may very well leave us consuming ongoing misapprehensions of our history and culture or one which seeks to go beyond the logic of easy consumerism.

#### Introduction

As a number of scholars have observed, there have been two notable fluorescences in the written literature of French Louisiana. The first occurred in the years leading unto and following the Civil War, with the publication of _Les Cenelles_ and the writing of the _New Orleans Tribune_ poets.

* Both fluorescences had political origins.
* Creoles of color were involved in both; Cajuns only in the latter.
* By focusing on these as moments, we ignore the ongoing traditions of folk poetry which take off with the coming of another form of fixity: the recording industry. To this day, many of south Louisiana’s best poets are not to be found in the pages of a book but in the grooves of a CD: Zachary Richard, Kristi Guillory, etc.

1845: _Les Cenelles_ published.
1860s: _Tribune_ poets.
1980: _Cris sur le bayou_.
1981: Kein’s _Gombo People_. _Acadia Tropicale_.

#### Readings

> Sometimes
> even early in the day, we take our
> brothers in our arms as we sing and
> dance, forgetting we wear masks.
> We get caught up in the act. We are
> fire and air. We will not remember
> until tomorrow our separateness,
> and that we are also earth.

For the Cajuns and Creoles of south Louisiana’s bayous and prairies, masks are not metaphors, not figures of speech, but an active part of reality. The irony of masking in this context, as Darrell Bourque makes clear in his poem, is an activity who’s seeming purpose is to alienate us fro ourselves as well as each other, makes us more who we are as individuals as well as communities. Removing the mask then, becomes something far more significant that simply symbolic, as Creole poet Debbie Clifton makes clear in her “Nôte pas mon masque,” which is both an homage as well as a revision of James Weldon Johnson. In that poet, she reminds us that “truth that can drive you mad” may lurk behind the mask. But Clifton is not content to embody the complex historical realities that are both the legacy of the South in general and Louisiana in particular. Like Bourque and other south Louisiana poets, this is a personal matter and as such, she is free to revise historical precepts as she sees fit, as she makes clear in the poem “Renaissance” which begins:

> Yes, I was his negress.
> I am her.
> and I will be her always.
> Anytimes he wants me like that,
> I am his negress.

What Cajuns and Creoles share is history and geography and they make full use of the latter in their work. It is almost as if by re-figuring the land, they perceive an opportunity to re-figure themselves. In poem after poem, Clifton and others re-imagine swamps, bayous, and marshes that so often as kinds of waking deaths in exoteric texts into places so fecund as only to be understood in glimpses.