Graduate/Undergraduate Seminar: Creole: French Portrayals of the Caribbean and Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries
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, racially “pure” identity. “Creolization” was, in the words of Françoise Vergès, “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.” But “Creole” also raised the specter of cultural inferiority, the assimilation of whites and blacks and irreversible racial degeneration. In 1979 the psychiatrist Bernard Biros wrote an influential thesis called “Creole Identity” that diagnosed the bipolarity of his Creole patients: having renounced “their culture of origin,” Creoles have a “dramatic sense of inferiority” and value metropolitan culture over their own; creoles are “jealous, proud, lacking good character” and also indolent, passive and sensual. For centuries, the French ascribed these contradictory and shifting attributes to Creoles. Bearing in mind the difference between French and Latin American usages of the term as well as its historically and geographically shifting definitions, this seminar will interrogate a series of case studies including the art of the Davidian student and ex-patriate in Brazil, Jean-Baptiste Debret; the self-fashioning and collecting of Martinique-born Josephine Bonaparte; representations of and by Caribbean men and women of color living in Paris, such as Alexandre Dumas père, the painter Guillaume Guillon Lethière and Baudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval; Manet’s series of paintings of the Execution of Maximilian wherein the French artist confronts the creole as defined in Mexico; Edgar Degas’s trip to in New Orleans; and the painting of Camille Pissarro (born Jakob Pizarro) on the island of Saint-Thomas where he lived and painted until the age of 25.
Qualified undergraduate students may be considered and should email me in advance of the first seminar meeting: firstname.lastname@example.org