What Exactly is a Creole?

  • Whatever the word Creole means, tons of people --or at least their elites-- claim they're it. But the word hardly ever means the same thing depending on where it's used and it is thus surprising that an IOCP (International Organization of Creole Peoples) exists.
A person of mixed-race or a person who speaks creole?
  • In Louisiana and Trinidad, Creole seems to mean person of mixed race, some of their ancestry being French. In Haiti, mixed-race people are called Mulatto or Grimo but not Creole--despite what a recent Village Voice article seemed to imply-- and Creole designates the French-derived language spoken by all of the population, French proper only being the second most spoken language.

Creole Haitian style v. Creole Gwada style...

  • In Martinique and Guadeloupe where the power structure is still French from France, Creole designates anything that is local (and therefore results from a mix of cultures that has been simmering ever since Columbus' arrival) and cannot be said to come from France alone: the cuisine, for example and more broadly the culture and language too of course.
  • Creolite the academic movement was concocted in Martinique and Guadeloupe ("M&G" for short) by the likes of acclaimed novelists Raphael Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau apparently to begin forging a Caribbean consciousness 1) in order to redress some of the lopsided Negritude of Cesaire, Senghor and their hyperintellectual buddies from Paris who believed in a (pan-African) Negro essence; 2) in the face of an uneasy French presence on M&G soil; 3) in the face of crushing European competition after France and all its overseas territories and departments--M&G included-- joined the EU. (Not only were locals having to compete with the french born who occupied most of the top bureaucratic spots in the two overseas departments, but they now had to contend with any Europeans who wished to do business there.)
  • When Haitian roots band Boukman Eksperyans sang Se Kreyol nou ye (meaning We Are Creole) a decade or so ago, the statement had a significance somewhat distinct from M&G's Creolity movement. After all, Haiti has long ago severed ties from the French colonial structure, making it wholly unnecessary to assert anything vis-a-vis France or the relatively few French officials on Haitian soil. If anything, the statement was more about forcing Haitians to maybe think of themselves as belonging to the Caribbean (something our english-speaking West Indian counterparts had been thinking of for quite a while while building CARICOM), as opposed to wallowing in its historical isolation.
  • And perhaps because in Haiti but also in M&G, the biggest association with the word Creole is still the language rather than Caribbeanity, increasing Caribbean consciousness is being expressed more and more with the words Caribeen, Caraibe, Cariban or in creole Karibeyen and only academics or ideologues use the word Creole to designate people. So Wyclef's song with Guadeloupean dancehall artist Admiral T opens with "Karibeyen nou ye, se Karibeyen nou ye." All of the new dancehall from M&G not only bandies about the word Caribbean --in english-- but also does its best to sound as Jamaican or Trini as possible despite singing in Creole, almost invariably ending rhymes and singing whole choruses in english-derived Patois.
Kreyol, French Caribbean or simply Haitian?
  • That being said, certain groups of Haitians in America are reclaiming Creolity, probably to make the notion of Haitianity seem familiar i.e. Louisianian... So there is now an annual Haitian music festival in New York called Kreyolfest, there is a Haitian beauty pageant called Miss Creole, and there is a Haitian internet forum called Lounge Kreyol... That coining may be something of a novelty but still sounds much much better than a euphemism that SOB's used for years to designate Haitian Music Fridays: French Caribbean Fridays. Ack! How many Haitians ever say "I'm French Caribbean" when asked where they're from? (Cf. Jean Dominique intro on Wycleff's Welcome to Haiti--Creole 101.) SOBs --which has made mucho bucks off of Haitians for years what with consistently sold out $25 a pop Friday nite concerts-- is now finally okay with calling its cash cow constituency what it is: H-A-I-T-I-A-N. So French Caribbean Fridays is now Manhattan H-A-I-T-I-A-N Dance Party. (Please post away about what YOU think prompted this cultural shift. That should make for a fun discussion in the comments section.) And next Saturday's Haitian Jazz Festival-not to be missed- won't have to be French Caribbean Jazz Festival.
Something having some connection to the French colonial project?
  • So in short, the lowest common denominator in defining Creole is that it is said of an entity (person or non-person depending on the country) that results from a mixture of cultures, at least one of which is French. If you're Caribbean or Louisianian, some African is probably presumed in the mix. If you're from Reunion, some Pacific Islander is probably part of the swirl. So when surfing IOCP, enjoy the pictures and the culture, the shift from English to French to one of several Creole languages but keep in mind that each of the Creole people featured has a different definition of what a Creole person is...
 UPDATE 11/24/2013

Legacy of 1804 with Professor Patrick Sylvain on: "I'm a Haitian, not a Creole and I speak Haitian"


wayne&wax said...

it's definitely a confusing term in its range of uses and meanings.

aside from describing the particular language spoken in haiti (if signified with the 'k' spelling), the word is also, of course, a technical term for a particular stage of language-merging.

as far as describing people, in my experience learning and teaching caribbean history, people tend to refer to creoles to name those who were born in the new world (at a time when such folks were not in the majority and a time when such folks were often of "mixed race" background). this holds not just for french territories, but spanish (i.e., criollos vs. peninsulares) and english as well.

finally, as you also note, caribbean scholars in the last two decades--especially in the realm of cultural studies--have increasingly shown an interest in the concept of creolization as a way of understanding culture in the caribbean. their adoption of this term is not uncontentious, however.

not sure how to sort all this out, but it is interesting how people choose to employ this term and the different meanings people make of it, depending on context, etc. and, as another side of this, it is truly fascinating to watch the meanings of hatianness change in response to an increasing presence and (purchasing) power in the urban US. love to see an interview with the SOBs folks about that.

Anonymous said...

What M&G means ??? I guess that how some haitians in general call the French West Indies. never understand why:first Guadeloupe is bigger and more populated than Martinique, and second not to compare with Trinidad $ Tabago, Guadeloupe is not a "province" of Martinique. Kreyol is everything the language,the people,food, tradition...everything that is not european.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussions on the word Creole. I am also very interested in how Creole is defined. I am from Louisiana and the culture in my area is a mixture but Cajun is used instead of Creole.

Anonymous said...

Hello "tud drêt?", or how are you in kriol from Cab-Verd or Cape Verde.
Here, kriol is "us".White,brown,black, dark skin ou not; capeverdians are all kriol ou Creole.
Since the land was found and populated in 1460, the people the language and the hole country and culture is kriol.Its our identity.Its who we are.


Alice B. said...

Thanks for this Cape-Verdian tidbit! Mesi anpil from a Kreyol from halfway across the world...

Anonymous said...

Sorry Alice but I'm not totally agree with your vision of my island (Martinique) and in fact about what's going on with France and Europe in this island. It's a false idea to let people think that the french presence in our islands is "uneasy" or that we have to compete with the "french born" and "with any Europeans who wished to do business". That's not true ! We ARE french. I repeat: I am a french born as any french guy born in Paris or wherever in France ! I'm not discriminated in my own island because of my skin color or whatever !
I'm not agree with Gwada and with his vision of a "creole" either ! Come on ! A creole is a mixed thing and you can't just erase the european part of it just because you have a problem with it !

As you read french Alice I just want to give you that url:

A few weeks ago a text of R. Confiant amazed some of us (not in a good way).

Some people are sprending some ideas in the FWI who are dangerous for democracy. There is a link between your vision (spread by a few) of the FWI and this url.

You have my e-mail if you want me to explain 2 ou 3 things...

Alice B. said...

Hi, [Moi]. Thanks for your clarifications. Very interesting. I'll look @ the link and follow up. :-)

Anonymous said...

Bonjour! There is a new blog that teaches Louisiana Creole French. It also has history and other information concerning Louisiana Creoles.


Anonymous said...

The term creole is not confusing , it is in constant motion. The term creolisation to define the constant movement it has known in the last two decades is more appropriate. Since its beginnings in the Portuguese islands of West Africa, it has known at least 30 recorded definitions depending on which colonizing nation and which geographical space was in utilization of the term. It will continue to define the movement and it will continue to stir controversy. Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Casamace, Gambia still have a vestige of the original Kriol that was first spoken by the creole elite of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry. There have been 123 creole languages recorded with european languages lexicon belonging to the colonizing slaver countries.There are creole cows and dogs in M&G and Brazil. Which definition are we to use to describe them? It is a strong wave of peoples, languages and even animals around the world who have realized the link between them and decided not to stay silent anymore