American Routes: Racial Palimpsests and the Transformation of Race

American Routes

Angel Adams Parham’s book American Routes: Racial Palimpsests and the Transformation of Race (Oxford, 2017, available in hardcover and as an ebook from many vendors) is an exciting work that makes a novel and important contribution to our understanding of race in the US. The “racial palimpsest” idea is that different racial systems layer over each other and can coexist as different groups struggle over their identity and position in society. Parham’s case is the refugees who fled the revolution in St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) and joined the Louisiana Creoles between 1791 and 1810. This migration almost doubled the population and left New Orleans blacker, more African, and with a larger proportion of free people of color. New Orleans and Louisiana had been governed first by the Spanish and then the French and had operated with a tri-partite racial system that permitted open relations between free people of color and whites and the accumulation of wealth by free people of color; allowed mixed-race offspring to inherit; treated whiteness as a matter of appearance and status, not purity; and both provided more possibilities for slaves to become free and permitted slaves more freedom to congregate than the Anglo-American system. When the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803, this French racial system was viewed as dangerous by the white Anglo-Americans and the two systems came into confrontation.

Angel Adams Parham

Parham shows how the French-speaking Creoles maintained their separate racial system for several generations even as the [white] Anglo-Americans sought to destroy it. Her focus is on Louisiana, but she does mention that St. Domingue refugees also went to cities along the eastern coast of the US, including Baltimore, where they were rapidly assimilated into the racial structures of the Anglo-American system. It was only in Louisiana that they were a large enough group to remain separate. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, when whites were mobilizing in Louisiana (and elsewhere) to re-subordinate black people, white Creoles were viewed with suspicion of being not purely white and were essentially forced to choose to be either white or Creole. White Creole identity almost completely disappeared from the public view and was kept alive only in family stories and some rural communities. Many families “passed” and cut themselves off from their family history and relatives. Creoles of color, many of whom were phenotypically white, maintained their Creole identity as neither black nor white by forming insular communities. Then, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Creoles of color faced a new identity crisis, and many chose to define themselves as Afro-Creole or black Creole, while others passed into white and others continued to maintain challenges to the binary racial system, often referencing Latinos.

Parham’s book is a major piece of scholarship. It draws on historical archival research, in-depth interviews, oral histories, and participant observation at Creole meetings. She traces Creoles and their interactions with Anglo-American racial systems across two hundred years. Chapter 1 sets the context by comparing the history of the Latin American and French Creole racial systems with the Anglo American racial system. Chapter 2 focuses on St. Domingue before and after the Haitian revolution, including a discussion of racial conflicts that pit often-wealthy free people of color against poorer whites. She argues that free people of color initially agitated for their own rights and equality with whites but later came to ally them with the enslaved majority. After the revolution, both white and colored slaveholders escaped with their slaves, first to Cuba, and then to Louisiana.

Chapter 3 traces the experiences of white Creoles in Louisiana in the 19th Century and how their customs, including their intimacies with free people of color, were challenged by Anglo-Americans. It documents how a white Creole identity was challenged and ultimately defeated in post-Reconstruction politics. Chapter 4 traces the 19th Century history of Creoles of color. It documents the ways Creoles of color challenged the assumptions of the binary system, including their debates with DuBois about the state of Southern black people. It also shows how Creoles of color simultaneously argued for their distinctiveness from Anglo-Blacks and supported full equality for the former slaves, including rejecting proposals to define anyone who was no more than ¼ black to be white. Parham specifically calls attention to the importance of Creoles of color in the 19th Century civil rights struggles, including not only Plessy, who was Creole, but the Creole Cometé des Citoyens, which was the organizational base of the civil rights campaign in Louisiana. Parham also argues that Creoles in the US were internationalists who engaged a global Francophone public and saw themselves as part of a larger struggle for rights occurring throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

Chapter 5 centers on oral histories with white Creoles, including some who were raised knowing their Creole family history and others who only learned of it in family history research. She shows how those who maintained Creole identity were generally in rural areas or kept it as family legend but not a public identity, while many white Creoles passed into Anglo-white. The families that passed typically cut themselves off from family history and even living relatives. Parham cites cases of descendants of major Creole activists from the 19th Century who had no idea of who their ancestors were. She also shows that newspapers treat white Creoles entirely as historical while Creoles of color are treated as living today. Chapter 6 is based on oral histories and interviews with Creoles of color. Many of these families have maintained a distinct Creole identity, especially in rural areas. These families often kept their children away from both black and white people. Many others came to identify as black in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, even those who are phenotypically white. Others who are descended from Creoles of color are in families that have recently passed as white and are keeping a family secret, not wanting to discuss their family history.

Chapter 7 is the conclusion, in which Parham reiterates the importance of palimpsests and competing racial systems and how this is different from the current debates about how the US racial system is responding to Latin American and other immigrants. She stresses the importance of the dynamics of racial systems and the competition between them as people struggle to define their place in society. She also emphasizes that these dynamics and struggles play out differently in different places depending both on the mix of groups in a place and the history of the place. She argues, I believe correctly, that the palimpsest concept is an important corrective to theories of immigrant assimilation, even segmented assimilation theory, in its overt recognition of race and its theorizing of struggles between racial systems, not just immigrants’ assimilation into a static racial system. She argues that treating European immigrants as the theoretical baseline has made it impossible to provide an adequate theorizing of race and immigration. She argues that the Creole case and the concept of racial palimpsests are necessary correctives for understanding racial construction and reconstruction in the current period. She argues that Miami, parts of New York City, and Los Angeles are places where Latin/Caribbean racial systems are being superimposed over the binary Anglo-American system. She also calls attention to the specific history of Miami, Los Angeles, and other areas of the South West where the older Spanish racial system never entirely disappeared and the Anglo-American system was never hegemonic.

Parham does not do everything. Her empirical focus is Louisiana, the Caribbean, and racial definitions involving mixtures of European and African ancestry. She ignores indigenous people and Asians entirely and does not directly reference the annexation of northern Mexico as another place where palimpsests would clearly be present. But I find the racial palimpsest concept and its attendant idea that people struggle over racial systems themselves, not just over their place in a particular system, and the idea that racial systems can be in competition, to be exciting and promising as tools for understanding the ongoing social construction of race.

This is a wonderful book. Graduate students here at Madison who read it for a course in comparative historical methods thought it was one of the best books they read. The book is a major undertaking that Parham began as her “second” post-PhD project and worked on for years as a labor of love until it was really done. Its scholarship is wide-ranging, meticulous and deep. It sheds light on many important aspects of US history that have not been previously seen. It is beautifully written. Its theoretical argument is fresh and important.

Angel Adams Parham is an associate professor of sociology at Loyola University of New Orleans.

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