Few words in American English are as misunderstood or as frequently misused as the term Creole. Because of the myriad misconceptions surrounding the word, it is necessary to define the term as it is presently used by students of Louisiana history and culture.
For the linguist, creole (lowercase "c") can signify either the hybrid language formed of French and West African linguistic elements or the individuals who speak the idiom. Creole-speakers, of course, can-and do-come from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds. The picture is further complicated because many individuals--both black and white--who identify themselves as Creole speak Cajun French instead of creole. This is particularly true in the prairie region of southwestern Louisiana, where Cajun French has traditionally functioned as the lingua franca. Unlike Creole Cajun-French speakers, who generally trace their ancestry to antebellum free persons of color, black and white creole-speakers are usually descendants respectively of slaves or slave owners who learned the language from their black domestics. Many creole-speakers can point to ancestors who fled Saint-Domingue's (present-day Haiti's) black revolution in the late 1790s and early 1800s.
The historian interprets the term quite differently, based on the common usage of the word in historical documents. For eighteenth-century Louisianians, "Creoles" (upper-case "c") signified "of local origin." Hence black and white children born in the colony were designated Creole to distinguish them from Louisiana European and African settlers. In the early eighteenth century, white Creoles were considered to be socially inferior to immigrants from the Continent, although once established as an economic force within the colony, white Creoles came to consider themselves a social aristocracy with Louisiana. Native-born black Creoles were generally regarded as more valuable than imported slaves because they were already acclimated and theoretically spoke French. There were also Creole varieties of vegetables and livestock.
The term was indelibly imprinted upon the white Creole community by almost uninterrupted influx of continental French, Canadian, Caribbean, and, later, pan-European French-speakers and the resulting need to distinguish native from immigrant Frenchman. The "Creole" designation for native-born African Americans fell from common usage after the Louisiana Purchase (1803) because shortly after the acquisition of the French colony from France, the United States Congress banned the importation of foreign slaves into Louisiana. The colonial usage of the term was revived after the Civil War, when former free people of color sought to distinguish themselves from freedmen (emancipated slaves). Recoiling in horror from the confusion over racial identity it created, white Creoles throughout Louisiana gradually abandoned their traditional ethnic identity, thereby eventually creating the false impression among outsiders that Creoles were exclusively either African American or people of mixed racial parentage--a misconception perpetuated by popular writers of the late twentieth century.
by Carl A. Brasseaux