Melting Pot In The Bayous

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The Spanish were less strict in practice. The Code Noir was one of the few French laws they retained, but there is reason to believe that they did not enforce it very rigidly, and it may have remained on the books only as a concession to popular sentiment. Spanish settlers, especially of the lower classes, had mixed their blood freely with Negroes in other colonies (it was one of the charges brought against them by the French), and they did the same in Louisiana. Paul Alliott, a French physician in New Orleans during the Spanish occupation, wrote: “Mulattoes and Negroes are openly protected by the government. He who was to strike one of those persons, even though he had run away from him, would be severely punished. Also twenty whites could be counted in the prisons of New Orleans against one man of color. The wives and daughters of the latter are much sought after by the white men, and white women at times prefer well built men of color.” (The phrase “men of color,” incidentally, was never applied by the French to full-blooded Negroes, only to mulattoes, who comprised a separate class.)

Some of the mixture of white and Negro blood in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans, undoubtedly dates from the Spanish occupation, but only a part of it—and a small part at that. The Code Noir notwithstanding, illicit unions between white masters and female slaves may be presumed to have taken place fairly frequently throughout the colony from the beginning, and during the American occupation—at least prior to the Civil War—with even greater frequency. The offspring of these unions constituted, as has been said, a rather special class in Louisiana society, and were referred to not as nègres but as gens de couleur . They were seldom slaves, since it was customary when a white man had a child by a Negro slave for him to free the mother, whereby the child was freed automatically. Gens de couleur could marry neither their own slaves (they sometimes owned large numbers) nor those of whites; however, through marriage within their own class and concubinage with whites their number increased rapidly. In 1769 there were only 31 gens de couleur in New Orleans; twenty years later, there were 1,700. The mulatto women were sometimes very beautiful, and though they did not mix socially with the white women, they frequently lured away the latter’s sweethearts by giving balls which exceeded those of the whites in gaiety and magnificence. Often a white gentleman would adopt one of these girls for his mistress, installing her in a little cottage where, even after his marriage, he would continue to visit her.

The gens de couleur fought with distinction in the Battle of New Orleans, and during the Reconstruction some of them became prominent officeholders, like Oscar J. Dunn, lieutenant governor of the state. It was not until the advent of Jim Crowism, about thirty-five years after the Civil War, that they came to be equated in Louisiana with their darker brothers. Before the Jim Crow legislation, a single drop of white blood had been considered sufficient to guarantee special privileges for its possessor; from then on, a single drop of Negro blood was considered sufficient to deprive him of them.

Louisiana’s African heritage is by no means insignificant: today, in New Orleans, one out of every four citizens is “colored.” The cultural differences between him and his white neighbor, however, are less evident in the city than in rural Louisiana, where, especially in the less accessible areas, the Negroes still speak a patois that is all but incomprehensible except to themselves—a queer mixture of French and African knowrn as Negro French or Negro Creole, which philologist William Read says is “composed of a highly corrupt French vocabulary, some native African words, and a syntax for the most part essentially African.” Certain African words also found their way into the white French dialects—for example, gris-gris (charm, amulet), zinzin (baldpate), and gombo , which derives from Congo quingombo (okra). The okra plant, native to Africa, was introduced into Louisiana either directly or by way of the West Indies, and its pods are an indispensable ingredient in the thick stew, usually made of seafood, known as gumbo. The potent influence of the Dark Continent is therefore not merely a matter of language and genetics. The slaves brought with them many strange superstitions that survive in the local folklore, as well as the voodoo cult which flourished surreptitiously almost until the beginning of the 1930’s. And of course there is jazz, the only original music to come out of the New World. It evolved from African slave dances and remained for many years the monopoly of New Orleans Negroes.