Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Famlies and Slavery in Louisiana by Nick Douglas (Charleston, 2013), 303 pages, bibliography, endnotes, index., $23.40 paperback, $16.99 Kindle.
Review by Frank W Sweet
Until the early 19th century, French-speaking Gulf-Coast Creoles comprised a multiracial culture resembling Puerto Rico. They differed in three ways from modern Americans’ view of “race”. First, athough they had some African ancestry, many were wealthy slaveowners. Second, they predated today’s Black ethnopolitical self-identity. Although their laws recognized three castes (White, Coloured and Black, as in South Africa), they were class conscious but socially continuous, ranging from those of European appearance (the most privileged) to those of sub-Saharan phenotype (the lowest rank). Third, they did not connect Blackness to invisible ancestry. The Jim-Crow notion that someone who looked White and self-identified as White, but had a trace of African ancestry, was involuntarily Black in some intangible sense would have mystified them.
In the five decades after the 1803 Louisana Purchase, an influx of English-speaking White Americans and their slaves slowly crushed Creole culture, imposing the sharp “racial” dichotomy that still dominates U.S. thought. Union victory then hastened the destruction of Creole community by stripping even wealthy but visibly Coloured former slaveowners of their rights by classifying them into the Yankee-invented category: “free blacks”.
Eventually, during the Jim Crow era of state-sponsored terrorism, courts punished opposition Whites by ruling them to be legally Black, due to an alleged drop of African blood. Creoles swallowed this one-drop dogma. Creole families split into White and Black branches. This led to today’s bizarre spectacle—unique to North America—that many Creoles who self-identify as White deny having any African ancestry, and many who self-identify as Black insist that the White ones are “Blacks passing for White.”
Although the story of the Gulf Coast Creoles has been explored by professional historians, it remains unknown to most Americans. Its obscurity may stem from the fact that history contradicts an important U.S. social myth. It challenges the K-12 master narrative that Americans of any African ancestry have always been a distinct endogamous group—a myth embraced by most African Americans and much of academia today.
Finding Octave by Nick Douglas is a painstaking and courageous effort to inform the uninformed. If any book has a shot at catching public interest and bringing the Creole story to the crowd it is this one.
The work is painstaking because it is clearly a labor of love, many years in the making. It apparently began as a genealogy project that swelled to include the broad historical implications of the struggles faced by its protagonists.
Douglas is courageous because the African-American community, academia, and mainstream media alike are remorseless in punishing dissidents. And whether he realizes it or not, Douglas is a dissident. He illuminates corners of the past that powerful men would prefer to keep in shadow. His tales of Euro-Americans who deliberately claimed to be Black in order to stay with their multiracial families, like his accounts of Creoles who bought and sold slaves, will enrage Black Studies professors into accusing him of being a Tom at best or a racist at worst.
The text dances gracefully among three themes. The first and most entertaining theme comprises tales of the author’s ancestors. We learn about saints and scoundrels, slaveowners and slaves, familes who overcame towering obstacles as well as those who were crushed by them. Every Creole genealogist needs to buy this book. It mentions hundreds of indivduals, giving the feeling that Douglas is connected, directly or by marriage, to virtually every Creole family who ever lived. Come to think of it, most Creoles probably are,
Now and then, Douglas interrupts his genealogical narrative to place family struggles into the wider context of the past’s social tides. This second text theme, traditional history-writing, is the most informative. Let me give a brief example of Douglas’s blend of genealogy and history. My own dissertation, Legal History of the Color Line, has the following paragraph:
By the 1850s, the courts had begun to treat all but the wealthiest and most powerful Colored Creoles as free Blacks. The Colored Creole community began to split into two groups. Light-complexioned ones urged their darker relatives to emigrate. Those who were too dark to prosper under American rule (and who lacked the wealth to stay anyway) began to leave. Two groups went to Haiti shortly before 1850. In 1857, two shiploads went to Tampico. Another ship left for Vera Cruz a few months later. In one parish alone, the number of Colored Creoles too dark to pass into the White world fell from 351 in 1855, to 153 in 1860.
In Finding Octave we learn the names of those emigrants, how many children they had, the names of the ships and when they sailed, what became of the families in Mexico, which ones stayed in the cities and which tried to make new lives farming, which families survived the stress of self-imposed exile, which marriages fractured, and which ones gave up and returned to the United States. This is history-writing at its best, making the reader identify with long-dead protagonists and pray for their success.
The spots where Douglas breaks the flow to share his feelings about learning the Creole past is the book’s weakest theme. Author introspection is always risky. It is doubly so in Finding Octave because the author cannot help projecting his own African-American ethnopolitical self-identity onto the past’s blank screen. For example, he often refers to Coloured Creoles and first-generation biracial children as “Black”, a label that would have drawn a challenge to a duel back then. Another example, Douglas argues that slaveowning Creoles must have been closet abolitionists or ashamed of owning slaves, but he claims this with no evidence beyond his own feelings of “race” loyalty. [Fair dislosure: I (Frank W Sweet) am Puerto Rican. Like most Puerto Ricans, I have significant sub-Saharan ancestry, descend from slaveowners as well as slaves, and see no reason why anyone would label me “Black” due to some imagined “racial” solidarity.]
A nitpick is that Douglas gets a couple of minor facts wrong. He writes, “African slaves… were more resistant to the malaria and yellow fever that plagued New Orleans.” In fact, although many descendants of west Africans are heterozygotic for Duffy-null and so resistant to Plasmodium vivax, and many descendants of Mediterranean peoples as well as central Africans are heterozygotic for HbS and so resistant to Plasmodium falciparum, no known mutation, African or otherwise, confers resistance to yellow fever. He writes, “Of the 16,200 free people of color heads of household in Louisiana in 1830, only about 750, fewer than five percent held slaves.” Stated differently, of the 1,834 Colored Creole and free Black heads of households who lived in 1839 New Orleans, 752 of them (41 percent) owned at least one slave [Dominguez, White by Definition (1986) p. 252]. But, as I said, these are quibbles that cannot detract from the value of.this book.
In conclusion, Finding Octave by Nick Douglas is a courageous and painstaking book that blends genealogy, historical analysis, and personal introspection into an important work. It will be useful to genealogists, fascinating to history buffs and, with any luck, informative to the great majority of Americans, Black and otherwise, who were never taught the history of “race” in the United States.
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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.
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