Re-Writing Race in Early American New Orleans

Posted in Articles, History, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States on 2012-03-07 15:59Z by Steven

Re-Writing Race in Early American New Orleans

n°5 (December 2011)

Nathalie Dessens, Professor of American History and Civilization
Université Toulouse 2, Le Mirail

This article examines the representation of the racial pattern and pattern of race relations in early American New Orleans. Starting with a historical and historiographical contextualization, the article shows that race relations were more complex than is usually depicted, partly because considerations based on other criteria than race were superimposed on the traditional categories. It concludes that there was not one way of representing races and race relations in the first decades of the postcolonial era, and suggests that these representations greatly varied from one group to another and did not necessarily correspond to the current representation based on the American/Creole dichotomy.

Louisiana’s first century of history accounts both for its inclusion in the antebellum American South and for the specificities it displayed in the young American republic. After six decades of French rule, it became a Spanish colony at the end of the Seven Years’ War, before briefly—and secretly—returning to French rule, in 1800, and being eventually sold, in 1803, to the United States by France. Its colonial past made it a slave colony, like the rest of the Anglo-American South, but it also made its social order slightly different from the rest of the South. Its three-tiered order, although it was by no means an exception in the plantation societies of the North-American continent, contradicted the biracial order that prevailed in most of the South and in the psyche of the new American rulers of Louisiana in the early 19th century.

When Louisiana was turned over to the United States, many historians contend, the old Creole population and the new rulers of Louisiana started conflicting over how to legislate on the racial order and how to deal with race relations in this new territory (then state) of the Union. Until relatively recently, the Creole/American opposition has been set forth by historians of Louisiana as the backbone of racial representations in early American Louisiana.

Recent historiography, however, has tended to show that, if this binary opposition is often a correct representation of the debates over racial questions in early American Louisiana, it is most certainly an oversimplification and cannot account for all the representations of race relations in Louisiana in the first four decades of American rule. This article is a contribution to these new historiographical trends.

Relying on a specific testimony, that of Jean Boze, a Frenchman arrived in New Orleans with the large wave of refugees from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue at the time of the Haitian Revolution, this article contends that the pattern of race interactions and race relations was much more complex than that defined by the Creole/American opposition. It will first examine the history and historiography of race relations in colonial and early American Louisiana, before examining the way in which testimonies of residents of Louisiana in the early national period may help revisiting the writing of race in the early postcolonial Crescent City…

Read the entire article here.

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