Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century

Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, History, Louisiana, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States, Women on 2013-03-21 21:30Z by Steven

Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century

University Press of Florida
152 pages
Cloth ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-4187-2

Arthé A. Anthony, Professor of American Studies, Emeritus
Occidental College, Los Angeles, California

Florestine Perrault Collins (1895-1988) lived a fascinating and singular life. She came from a Creole family that had known privileges before the Civil War, privileges that largely disappeared in the Jim Crow South. She learned photographic techniques while passing for white. She opened her first studio in her home, and later moved her business to New Orleans’s black business district. Fiercely independent, she ignored convention by moving out of her parents’ house before marriage and, later, by divorcing her first husband.

Between 1920 and 1949, Collins documented African American life, capturing images of graduations, communions, and recitals, and allowing her subjects to help craft their images. She supported herself and her family throughout the Great Depression and in the process created an enduring pictorial record of her particular time and place. Collins left behind a visual legacy that taps into the social and cultural history of New Orleans and the South.

It is this legacy that Arthé Anthony, Collins’s great-niece, explores in Picturing Black New Orleans. Anthony blends Collins’s story with those of the individuals she photographed, documenting the profound changes in the lives of Louisiana Creoles and African Americans. Balancing art, social theory, and history and drawing from family records, oral histories, and photographs rescued from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Anthony gives us a rich look at the cultural landscape of New Orleans nearly a century ago.

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“Lost Boundaries”: Racial Passing and Poverty in Segregated New Orleans

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2011-05-29 02:47Z by Steven

“Lost Boundaries”: Racial Passing and Poverty in Segregated New Orleans

The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association
Volume 36, Number 3 (Summer, 1995)
pages 291-312

Arthé A. Anthony, Professor of American Studies, Emeritus
Occidental College, Los Angeles

On sunny summer Sunday afternoons in Harlem
when the air is one interminable ball game
and grandma cannot get her gospel hymns
from the Saints of God in Christ
on account of the Dodgers on the radio,
on sunny Sunday afternoons
when the kids look all new
and far too clean to stay that way,
and Harlem has its
washed-and-ironed-and-cleaned-best out,
the ones who’ve crossed the line
to live downtown
miss you,
Harlem of the bitter dream,
since their dream has
come true.

Langston Hughes, 1951

Racial passing is a well-known theme in pre-World War II African-American literature. Adrian Piper’s recent essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” is an example of continued interest in the topic. In addition, “passing” is used in cultural studies as a metaphor for masking the real-and most often marginalized-self. This article examines racial passing, with an emphasis on the lives of black Creole women, in relation to the economic impact of racial repression and segregation on black life in New Orleans. My conclusions are drawn, in large part, from an analysis of thirty extensive oral history interviews that I conducted with eighteen women and twelve men born between 1885 and 1905, and living in downtown New Orleans in 1977. Each of the men and women that I interviewed thought of themselves as “Creole,” and participated in the familial and social networks of the city’s black Creole community.

Their occupations and educations were representative of the choices then available in New Orleans. All of them worked, although the kind of work that they did changed over the life cycle; they were primarily cigar makers, seamstresses, skilled craftsmen in the building trades, postal carriers, printers, and school teachers. A few of them attended the city’s private high schools and normal schools, an accomplishment that has to be understood within the context of the limited availability of an education-private or public-for African-Americans at the turn of the century. Many others were forced to terminate their educations, in more than one instance as early as the third grade, to begin working, whereas others finished apprenticeships. Their personal lives were equally varied as reflected in the extended, nuclear and augmented households in which they lived, and their individual experiences with parenting, divorce and remarriage, as well as widowhood and desertion. Most, but not all of them, were Catholics. Despite their individual differences, as a group the Creoles of color that I interviewed shared first-hand experiences with hard work and racial discrimination. The women-a group that has been overlooked in New Orleans historiography-experienced both racial and sexual discrimination.

Each of the men and women I interviewed offered insightful interpretations of the worlds in which they lived. They were all very familiar with the myriad practices of racial passing; although they were not all light-skinned, they all knew of individuals-often a parent, spouse or friend-who had passed. More important than examples of the intricate mechanics of passing were their observations about the reasons individuals did so. Lillian Gelbart Simonet, for example, born in 1904, identified a relationship between passing for white and poverty when she remarked:

There are whole families of these people in New Orleans, (who are not necessarily Creoles), who have just been absorbed and gone to various parts of the country and they’re white. Sometimes you just can’t blame them because they have had a hard time. Creole people, with all of the airs, had a hard time to get along [because] they [the young women] would not be domestics. Some were fortunate enough to get work at El Trelles, a cigar factory . . . and Wallace Marine had a cigar factory . . . they weren’t prepared to do any kind of work that required any kind of education at all because half of them hadn’t finished high school.”

The observations of Mrs. Simonet, a retired public school teacher, call attention to the limited opportunities available to the majority of black Creoles who were poor and uneducated, unlike herself.

In the larger scheme of twentieth-century American race categorization, individuals were either black or white. Individual whites may have had preferences for light-skinned or dark-skinned African-Americans in their employ.  But overall the ethnic and cultural nuances and phenotypical differences that were critical to the intraracial dynamics of the black community were disregarded by whites in the segregated economy of New Orleans in the 1900s-1920s. Many Creoles of Color consequently were willing to accept the risks of passing for white rather than suffer the deteriorating material and social conditions endured by persons living and working as “colored.”…

…Although the history of racial passing does not evoke the clearcut ethical responses that we have to slavery it is an important part of the larger story of racism and racial repression in this country. The frequency of passing is further evidence of the fraudulence of race as a meaningful construct for other than divisive exploitation. The experiences of the black Creole men and women that I have focused on are examples of the extreme risks African-Americans born at the turn-of-the-century often felt forced to take to circumvent a poverty that was socially engineered by white supremacists who wanted to preserve decent paying jobs for whites. Therefore, to read the history of “passing” as a tragic mulatto story of self-hatred, or as evidence of a “devil may care,” Caribbean-style multiracial identity in South Louisiana is to misread the history of American race relations…

Read or purchase the article here.

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Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-04-24 17:27Z by Steven

Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color

Louisiana State University Press
August 2000
344 pages
Trim: 6 x 9 , Illustrations: 14 halftones
Paper ISBN-13: 978-0-8071-2601-1

Edited by:

Sybil Kein (born Consuela Marie Moore), Distinguished Professor of English Emerita
University of Michigan

The word Creole evokes a richness rivaled only by the term’s widespread misunderstanding. Now both aspects of this unique people and culture are given thorough, illuminating scrutiny in Creole, a comprehensive, multidisciplinary history of Louisiana’s Creole population. Written by scholars, many of Creole descent, the volume wrangles with the stuff of legend and conjecture while fostering an appreciation for the Creole contribution to the American mosaic.

The collection opens with a historically relevant perspective found in Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s 1916 piece “People of Color of Louisiana” and continues with contemporary writings: Joan M. Martin on the history of quadroon balls; Michel Fabre and Creole expatriates in France; Barbara Rosendale Duggal with a debiased view of Marie Laveau; Fehintola Mosadomi and the downtrodden roots of Creole grammar; Anthony G. Barthelemy on skin color and racism as an American legacy; Caroline Senter on Reconstruction poets of political vision; and much more. Violet Harrington Bryan, Lester Sullivan, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Sybil Kein, Mary Gehman, Arthé A. Anthony, and Mary L. Morton offer excellent commentary on topics that range from the lifestyles of free women of color in the nineteenth century to the Afro-Caribbean links to Creole cooking.

By exploring the vibrant yet marginalized culture of the Creole people across time, Creole goes far in diminishing past and present stereotypes of this exuberant segment of our society. A study that necessarily embraces issues of gender, race and color, class, and nationalism, it speaks to the tensions of an increasingly ethnically mixed mainstream America.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
    • 1 People of Color in Louisiana – Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson
    • 2 Marcus Christian’s Treatment of Les Gens de Couloir Libre – Violet Harrington Bryan
    • 3 Plaçage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur Libre: How Race and Sex Defined the Lifestyles of Free Women of Color – Joan M. Martin
    • 4 Composers of Color of Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The History Behind the Music – Lester Sullivan
    • 5 The Yankee Hugging the Creole: Reading Dion Boucicault’s The OctoroonJennifer DeVere Brody
    • 6 The Use of Louisiana Creole in Southern Literature – Sybil Kein
    • 7 Marie Laveau: The Voodoo Queen Repossessed – Barbara Rosendale Duggal
    • 8 New Orleans Creole Expatriates in France: Romance and Reality – Michel Fabre
    • 9 Visible Means of Support: Businesses, Professions, and Trades of Free People of Color – Mary Gehman
    • 10 The Origin of Louisiana Creole – Fehintola Mosadomi
    • 11 Louisiana Creole Food Culture: Afro-Caribbean Links – Sybil Kein
    • 12 Light, Bright, Damn Near White: Race, the Politics of Genealogy, and the Strange Case of Susie GuilloryAnthony G. Barthelemy
    • 13 Creole Poets on the Verge of a Nation – Caroline Senter
    • 14 “Lost Boundaries”: Racial Passing and Poverty in Segregated New Orleans – Arthé Anthony
    • 15 Creole Culture in the Poetry of Sybil Kein – Mary L. Morton
  • Contributors
  • Index
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