Black Creoles of Louisiana - Religion and Expressive Culture
It is especially in the realms of ritual, festival, food, and music as expressive cultural forms that Creole identity within the region is asserted and through which the culture as a whole is recognized, though often misrepresented, nationally and internationally.
Religious Beliefs. Creoles are, like most southern Louisianians, predominantly Catholic. Southern Louisiana has the largest per capita Black Catholic population in the country. Historically, the Creole churches and parishes, especially those in rural areas and some poorer urban neighborhoods, have been viewed by the church as missionary districts. In addition to various Irish and French-Canadian clergy who have worked in Louisiana, the Baltimore-based Josephite Fathers have long operated in the Black Creole communities. Beyond the official dogma and structures of the Catholic church, a wide range of folk religious practices has flourished, drawing upon African influences, medieval Catholicism, African-American belief and ritual systems, and Native American medicinal and belief systems. Home altars with saints, statues, and holy water are widely used. Houses are trimmed with blessed palms or magnolias in the form of crosses over the doors. Creole Louisiana is probably best known for its association with voodoo ( voudun in Haiti) as an Afro-Catholic set of religious practices. Unlike Haiti, Louisiana Black Catholics have remained more connected to official church practices; thus African retentions are less marked. Still, within the context of the United States, Southern Louisiana Catholicism is unique. The practices of healers, spiritualists, and voodoo specialists who utilize an eclectic mix of prayers, candles, special saints, and charms for good or ill is carried on in settings that range from grossly commercial to private within neighborhoods and Communities. Probably the strongest carrier of African-based religious tradition in both Creole and non-Creole Black communities in New Orleans are the spiritual churches. These locally based institutions emphasize spirit possession and ecstatic behavior as part of their service, and unlike such churches elsewhere, they utilize a wide range of Catholic saints and syncretic altars for power figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Michael the Archangel, and Chief Blackhawk. In rural areas, the new charismatic Catholicism has also been Influential.
Religious Practitioners. Traditional healers in rural Black Creole and Cajun communities are called traiteurs.
Ceremonies . Although linked to Catholicism, Mardi Gras has pre-Christian roots which in turn combined with African and a variety of New World traditions to become the major celebratory occasion of the year. In New Orleans, the festival draws large numbers of tourists and has a public focus on elite parades. Blacks and Black Creoles participate in two significant forms of public carnival celebration. One is the Zulu parade, which involves middle- and upper-middle-class participants parodying the White carnival and stereotypes of Blacks by painting their own faces black, wearing wooly wigs and grass skirts, and carrying spears while throwing coconuts to the crowds. The other major group includes dozens of bands of working-class men dressed in fanciful versions of Plains Indians costumes of beads, feathers, and ribbons. The Mardi Gras Indians associate under names like Creole Wild West, White Eagles, or Yellow Pocahontas. These hierarchical groups use esoteric language, call/response singing, and complex drumming to express personal worth through performance and pride among associations of men who are often Otherwise excluded from mainstream social acceptance. Rural Creole Mardi Gras influenced by Cajun culture involves more of a French mumming tradition of going from house to house with men dressed as women, devils, Whites, and strangers to the community. Taking the role of beggar-clowns, the men ask for charité in the form of a live chicken, which they must catch and kill. Those householders giving charité then are invited to a communal supper. Mardi Gras is not exclusive to Black Creoles, but in both urban and rural instances they are occasions utilized to express Creole style and social boundaries through traditional public performances.
Arts. Creole music is often associated with carnival occasions. In New Orleans, jazz has long been created and played by Creoles from Sidney Bechet to Jelly Roll Morton and the Marsalis family. Jazz conjoins European melodies and performance occasions (cotillion, ball, military parade) with African sensibilities of rhythm, ritual/festival performance (originally slave gatherings in public squares), and style. In its mingling of styles to create a new music, jazz is analogous to Black Creole history and culture and is truly a Creole music that has transformed America and the world. Zydeco is the music of Black Creoles in southwestern Louisiana. It is a synthesis of Cajun tunes, African-American blues, and Caribbean rhythms. The word zydeco (les haricots ) literally translates from Creole as "snapbeans." The word may have African root forms, but in Louisiana folk etymology it is attributed to the proverbial phrase les haricots sont pas sales ("no salt in the beans") referring to hard times when no salt meat was available. Performed on accordion and violin with Creole vocals and a rhythm section augmented by a hand-scraped frottoir (rubbing board), zydeco music brings together the full range of the Creole community for weekly dances at bars and church halls, the only exception being the Lenten season. All these Creole expressive cultural forms of festival and music (to which could be added Creole cuisine) have come to mark this African-Mediterranean cultural group as unique within America but related to other Creole societies in the Caribbean, South America, and West Africa. Creoles and creolization of cultural elements set much of the regional tone for southern Louisiana. Their expressive culture has been national and worldwide in impact.
Death and Afterlife. Death and burial practices that stand out are the jazz funerals of New Orleans—generally linked to West African traditions of celebrating the passage of an acclaimed elder. Such funeral processions involve jazz bands playing dirges as they follow the body to the cemetery and then breaking into upbeat parade tunes after burial as they return home. In rural and urban Creole Louisiana cemeteries, the dead are remembered particularly on Toussaint, or All-Saints' Day (November 1 on the liturgical calendar). Families clean, paint, and decorate the vaulted white, above-ground tombs that characterize the region. In some areas candlelit ceremonies are held.