New Orleans has always captured our imagination as an exotic city in its racial ambiguity and pursuit of les bons temps. Despite its image as a place apart, the city played a key role in nineteenth-century America as a site for immigration and pluralism, the quest for equality, and the centrality of self-making.
In both the literary imagination and the law, creoles of color navigated life on a shifting color line. As they passed among various racial categories and through different social spaces, they filtered for a national audience the meaning of the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and de jure segregation.
Shirley Thompson offers a moving study of a world defined by racial and cultural double consciousness. In tracing the experiences of creoles of color, she illuminates the role ordinary Americans played in shaping an understanding of identity and belonging.
Few cities in the U.S. South can boast of the cultural and ethnic diversity that makes New Orleans distinctive. Especially during the antebellum period, the Crescent City served as one of the nation’s greatest proverbial melting pots. But the cultural diversity that characterized New Orleans differed from that of other port cities in an important sense. Central to establishing identity was a complex racial formula that could both advance and inhibit social and legal standing. Focusing on the city’s Creoles of color, whom she defines as French-speaking people of African descent who lived literally on the ‘color line,’ Thompson offers groundbreaking analysis of the racial gradations that determined identity in New Orleans. The struggle of individuals possessing varying degrees of African blood to become American ranged from desperate efforts to pass as white to accepting their legal status as black people and demanding civil rights for their kind. In detailing the complex, convoluted challenges that confronted Creoles of color, Thompson takes readers through devastating yellow fever epidemics, the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction and a semblance of resolution. Supported by impressive research, this book offers a lively read that will entertain a variety of audiences from general readers to graduate students.
New Orleans has often been banished from the national narrative for its exceptionality. With impressive scholarship and graceful writing, Shirley Thompson lucidly demonstrates how the city’s very Creole nature makes it one of our most emblematic places. The fascinating story of its nineteenth-century residents’ struggle to forge an American identity out of disparate racial and ethnic heritages reveals the perils and privileges of national belonging.
How do people hold the middle ground when pressed from both sides? Exiles at Home tells the story of racial construction and reconstruction in New Orleans from the point of view of its Creoles of color. Thompson’s nuanced and clear-eyed treatment of people who both denied racial reasoning and embraced racial solidarity is a dazzling blend of history and literary studies that deepens our understanding of racial identity and ethnicity.
In this compelling and often provocative study, Thompson situates New Orleans’ nineteenth-century monde créole squarely in the mainstream of the American experience without neglecting the intricacies of the city’s singular history as a racial and cultural crossroads. Thompson uses créolité as a prism to illuminate the transformation of New Orleans into an American city and to illustrate how an embattled sense of identity could inspire heroic agency in defense of basic human freedoms for those (living and dead) who refused to acquiesce or disappear.
Thompson’s fascinating study gives us a fresh view of the transformation of New Orleans from a bilingual and multiracial city to an American anglophone place in which the color line came to be drawn more sharply. This is a rich, beautifully written cultural history that puts Creoles of color at the center of the American story.
New Orleans is an alternative American history all in itself, and Exiles at Home is an essential work for decoding it. 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.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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