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Exiles at Home

Exiles at Home

The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans

Shirley Elizabeth Thompson

ISBN 9780674023512

Publication date: 02/15/2009

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.

    —S. C. Hyde, Choice


  • Shirley Elizabeth Thompson is Assistant Professor in American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

Book Details

  • 400 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press