Graduate Seminar: CREOLE PORTRAITS: France, Saint-Domingue/Haiti, New Orleans (18th to 19th centuries)
Monday | 1:00 - 4:00pm
This seminar will grapple with the unique indeterminacy of the term “creole,” defined by one dictionary as: “ in the West Indies and parts of America- a. a native-born person of European, especially Spanish, ancestry; b. a native-born person of mixed European and African ancestry who speaks a French or Spanish creole; c. a native-born Black person as distinguished from one brought from Africa.” “Creole” thus describes white, black, or mixed-race persons, born not in Europe or Africa, but in the colonies. The term is colorblind, speaking instead to a shared displacement of persons from their (European and African) ancestral cultures to a foreign site where they were born. “Creole” binds unlike people on the basis of culture and history rather than biology: blacks and whites and people of mixed race who, because of the history of colonialism and slavery, share a geographic displacement from their genealogical and cultural origins. What first generation Creoles share is not being born where their parents were born. The word “Creole” implies that the condition of being born in the colonies determines identity in ways that supersede race, language, nation, and social status. It is a capacious and ambiguous term, referring to people of African, French, Spanish, and Portuguese descent (among others); to slaves and to slave-owners; to the colonized and to colonizers. Creoles were simultaneously relatives of Africans and Europeans and foreigners in relation to them.
“Creole” also signifies cultural invention, the fabrication of a new culture that distances Europeans and Africans alike from their original “pure” identity. “Creolization” was, in the words of FrançoiseVergès, “the process whereby individuals of different cultures, languages, and religions were thrown together and invented a new language, Creole, a new culture, and a new social organization.” Yet “Creole” also raised the specter of cultural inferiority, the assimilation of whites and blacks and the possibility of irreversible racial degeneration. For centuries, the French ascribed these contradictory and shifting attributes to Creoles who were sometimes their relatives,
Bearing in mind the historically and geographically shifting French definitions of Creole, this seminar will examine painting and prints and will put special emphasis on the genre of portraiture. Case studies include the illustrated 18th-century history of Saint-Domingue by the Martiniquan Moreau de Saint-Méry; representations of the Haitian Revolution, especially its violence and military officers; depictions of and by Caribbean men and women “of color” living in Paris, such as the novelist Alexandre Dumas père (who was continually caricatured), the painters Guillaume Guillon Lethière and Théodore Chasseriau, and Baudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval portrayed by both Courbet and Manet; and Edgar Degas’s portraits of his Creole family in New Orleans. Key to our examination will be the history of slavery; the “social death” of persons deemed objects; constructions of race; the historical tensions between black slaves and people of color; abolitionist iconography; revolution; violence, trauma, and the disaggregation of bodies; caricature; the vexed status of the Creole family; miscegenation, filiation, illegitimacy, and incest; and the borders between the animate and inanimate.
I am now completing my book Creole Looking and we will read much of my writing as I hope to benefit from your thinking. But we will also read a lively pertinent literature by authors such as Moreau de Saint-Méry, Lafcadio Hearn, Hegel, Frantz Fanon, Saidiya Hartman, Joan Dayan, Françoise Vergès, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Orlando Patterson, Doris Garraway, Benedict Anderson, Monique Allewaert, Sibylle Fischer, and Caribbean theorists of Creolité such as Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant. I encourage students to read my book Extremities. Painting Empire in post-Revolutionary France (2002) this summer as we will discuss it at our second meeting.