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Tracing New Orleans’ Creole History

It’s Mardi Gras week in New Orleans, a time to celebrate the Crescent City’s diverse culture and time-honored traditions. With its unique blending of French, Spanish, Caribbean, Native American and African influences, the city is perceived by many as a place apart.

Despite its image as a foreign land, New Orleans played a vital role as a site for the American struggle for racial equality during the 19th century, according to Shirley Thompson, assistant professor of American Studies.

Thompson’s “Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in New Orleans” (Harvard University Press, 2009) examines how Creoles of color, the French speaking population of African decent, struggled to resist and redefine social categories during a time of transformation.

In her nuanced historical survey of a world defined by color lines, Thompson analyzes the experiences of New Orleans’ “les gens de coleur libre” (free people of color), and how they shaped an understanding of cultural identity and belonging. With a particular focus on racial passing, Thompson explores the social and political outcomes for Creoles of color who either chose to “pass” for white or black.

Tracing New Orleans’ historically unique experience with race, ethnicity, class and politics, Thompson reveals how its people did –and did not- adjust to a multiethnic environment.

Ned Sublette, author of “The World that Made New Orleans,” wrote “…Thompson portrays vividly the predicament of a community that was neither allowed all the privileges of whites nor subjected to the cruelest indignities visited upon blacks, and, accordingly, was trusted by neither. She makes comprehensible the subtleties of caste and language in New Orleans, and provides a new way to see its historic streets.”