New Orleans in the World: Race, Culture and Transnational Identity

AHA Session 223
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Borgne Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Wendi Manuel-Scott, George Mason University
New Orleans and the Wider World
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel examines aspects of New Orleans’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural history through a transnational lens. Due to the city’s unique international and multiracial heritage, New Orleans has been a meeting point for many different populations. Sometimes the city has also served as an arena for group conflict. While such divisions appear most often (and most visibly) along racial lines, they have also been informed by other factors such as class, nationality, gender, religion and sexuality. Whatever the case, these factors have profoundly defined the city’s evolving histories. The papers presented in this panel critically explore the local and global resonances of these encounters and conflicts.

Each paper examines how different city communities engaged in cultural production— whether through art, literature, music or spectacle—within the city’s hierarchical racial caste system. Creole historian Rien Fertel, a scholar at Tulane, analyzes the case of Charles Gayarré (1805-1895), who sought to forge an “imagined community” of Creoles through the creation of English- and (especially) French-language print culture, including poetry, prose, and historical writing. Gayarré championed a distinct Creole identity, and sought to raise the prestige of his group by reaching out to a transnational high culture readership. In turn, by defining Creoles as exclusively white and denying any connection with Black francophone writers, Gayarré claimed a favored status for Creoles within the city’s segregated society.

The Creoles of New Orleans were not the only group to achieve “whiteness” (i.e. recognition of full citizenship) through transnational links. As the Montreal-based ethnic historian Greg Robinson demonstrates, throughout the Jim Crow era, thanks largely to New Orleans’s rich trade relations with Japan, people of Japanese ancestry—unlike in most of North America—were treated as “whites” and welcomed (if sometimes exoticized) by locals. Yet much of the corresponding fascination that Japanese (and Nisei) felt for New Orleans centered on its African-American heritage, especially jazz, and reflected their abiding feeling of connection to Blacks as racial “others.”

The theme of transnational blackness is taken up by Benedict Carton and Robert Vinson, both historians who study South Africa and the African Diaspora. They trace the history of black minstrels in the Zulu Club, the first African-American social organization to win permission to march in the city’s signature Mardi Gras parade.  The “Zulu” earned this right in exchange for donning blackface and performing satirical rituals. Ironically, the mask of blackface allowed the Zulus of New Orleans to inject a measure of racial pride in the accomplishments of ancient and modern Africa. Furthermore, even as the blackface ritual drew more and more protests from race-conscious blacks, the importance of anti-apartheid activism as a transnational site of Black mobilization gave the Zulu Club a new image and political purpose.

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