France 24, Feb. 15, 2022

Voilà! Turns out an obscure academic term I use in my historical writing got to be a political talking point in this year’s French elections. The word is “creolization” (créolisation in French), and it’s used by cultural anthropologists to describe the cultural blending in creole societies like those of the Caribbean and, by extension, America, France and most of the rest of the world in an age of globalization.

Leftwing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon had as good an explanation of what it means as anyone, according to this account on France 24, the French public television website, of a debate early in the campaign:

“The process of créolisation is neither a platform nor an idea that I am proposing; it’s a fact,” Mélenchon told [opposing candidate [Éric] Zemmour during another televised face-to-face clash in January. “Every place where human societies have brought their cultures together, they have been créolised. I’m talking about culture, about music … ” [Link in the original.]

The result, according to veteran Paris correspondent Tracy McNicoll, who covered the presidential race for France 24: A “meeting of cultures [that] creates something greater, or at least new and different, than the sum of their parts, a synergistic blend, like the diverse origins of a Creole language.”

France faces some of the same political pressures as we do in the US, and creolization got to be a political football. In February France 24 included it in a standing feature on “campaign buzzwords.” The concept has taken on new meaning in recent years, especially in Europe and the UK, and the back-and-forth in the French election points up the new emphasis.

So this seems a good time to catch up on my understanding of creolization as it has developed. Copied below are relevant excerpts from a journal article and two papers I’ve presented at historical conferences:

  • “ ‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 109, no. 1 (Spring 2016);
  • Cultural Hybridity, Anglo-American Hymns and European Chorales in a Pioneer Swedish Immigrant Singing School. Conference on Illinois History, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, Springfield, October 5, 2017; and
  • Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860, Conference on Illinois History, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Springfield, October 7, 2020.

Common to these discussions is a quote that advocates of creolization latched onto early from postcolonial author Salman Rushdie — who is widely quoted (at least by cultural anthropologists) as saying his writing “rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” More recently, I’ve been studying French poet, novelist and literary critic Édouard Glissant, who has some challenging, and I think ultimately worthwhile, ideas on the subject.

‘Jingoism versus jambalaya’ in France

But first, the French election coverage. From the France 24 “buzzwords” feature by veteran correspondent Tracy McNicoll on Feb. 15. It’s worth quoting in detail:

Hardline pundit-turned-politician Éric Zemmour, a proponent of “great replacement” theory – a conspiracy theory claiming that elites are trying to replace White people across Europe with African and Middle Eastern immigrants – is giving far-right stalwart Marine Le Pen a run for her money on the right. But conservative Valérie Pécresse is fighting for hardline votes, too. During her first major rally in Paris on Sunday, Pécresse assured the crowd that she was “not resigned to the great replacement”. She also appeared to question the loyalty of naturalised French citizens, touting the virtues of “assimilation” because, as she put it, “I want people who are French in their hearts and not just on paper.”

Jingoism versus jambalaya

Not content to let Zemmour dominate the debate on what constitutes French identity, candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party has been counterpunching with the idea of “créolisation” – a concept with roots in the Americas that suggests the meeting of cultures creates something greater, or at least new and different, than the sum of their parts, a synergistic blend, like the diverse origins of a Creole language.

“Assimilation doesn’t exist; what exists is créolisation. And it comes in stages: first, there is the integration of those who arrive. If that works, créolisation will happen faster,” Mélenchon told Zemmour during a televised debate in September. [Links in the original.]

I think that subhead is sheer genius, by the way!

Jambalaya is an iconic dish, blending andouille sausage, chicken, pork, shrimp and/or game meat with okra and/or tomatoes and rice. Its precise origins are unknown, but Wikipedia guesses it’s a blend of French, Spanish and West African foodways. (I’m not sure why they overlook the very similar Choctaw Indian stews that gave us filé gumbo.) And, of course, they’re both staples of Louisiana creole culture.

‘Where does the term come from?’

Another brilliant subhead, either by Nicholls or a subeditor on the France 24 copydesk. Asked and answered, as Nichols says:

Mélenchon is quick to credit Younous Omarjee, a far-left MEP [member of the European parliament] from the French overseas region of La Réunion, for giving him the idea. Credit for the term goes to Édouard Glissant, a poet from Martinique in the French Antilles, who coined it in the 1980s. “Créolisation”, as Glissant defines it, is “a blend of cultures that creates something new”, something unexpected, that “belongs to none of the cultures that comprise it”.

During a December campaign rally, Mélenchon offered his own take on the idea. “Whatever one’s gender, colour or religion, we are called upon to love one another, and so we pool together our tastes and our cultures. That’s créolisation. Créolisation is the future of humanity,” he told a crowd of 5,000 at a venue west of Paris. [Link in the original.]

Glissant didn’t originate the term, in fact, but he put an important spin on it by taking it to a literary and philosophical level that transcends its origins in the racially mixed societies of the Caribbean (and the dry-as-chalkdust environs of academic journals). For a year now, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Glissant’s contribution (see HERE and HERE for recent examples).

I’ve been especially interested in an elaboration on Glissant by the late French jurist Mireille Delmas-Marty. In a 2018 UNESCO Courier article (and a 2021 special edition of the Revue européenne du droit [European law review] of Paris), she suggests that “reciprocal creolization” might protect cultural diversity from what she terms the “single poly-crisis” brought on by climate change, mass migration and “galloping globalization” (I made note of it HERE). She doesn’t quite define the term, but she builds on Glissant and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to suggest creolization “means finding […] a truly common meaning” that leads through dialog and translation to “reciprocal transformation.” It was from reading Delmas-Marty last year, in fact, that I first learned of Glissant.

Excerpts from my papers:

“How Newness Enters the World”: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925, JISHS, Spring 2016

IN HIS ENGAGINGLY TITLED STUDY Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music (2010), folklorist James P. Leary suggests the old-time ethnic music of the upper Midwest reflects much the same kind of cultural blending as New Orleans jazz. “Here,” he says, “musical interactions have long been distinguished by egalitarianism, by freewheeling accommodation and blending across complex boundaries. Here reside North Coast creoles.” [1] By using the term “creole,” he doesn’t mean to imply a taste for Cajun stews and filé gumbo. Instead, he’s borrowing a scholarly term used to discuss the blending of musical genres ranging from Afro-pop and Bollywood to the homegrown country-and-western bands that flourish in the oil fields of southern Norway in an age of globalization.

Leary argues that midwestern polkas and hillbilly songs qualify as a creole art form, and I believe the somewhat earlier juxtaposition of Reformation-era Lutheran chorales, Victorian hymns, Swedish folk melodies and Anglo-American revival songs in early twentieth-century Swedish-American hymnals produced at Augustana College in Rock Island also reflects a complex process of creolization rather than a simple process of replacing Swedish with American forms. “This term [creolization] describes the cross-fertilization which takes place between different cultures when they interact,” says Paolo Toninato of the University of Warwick in England. “ The locals select particular elements from incoming cultures, endow these with meanings different from those they possessed in the original culture and then creatively merge these with indigenous traditions to create totally new forms.” [2]

As the term is used by students of globalization and migrant cultures, creolization is notoriously hard to define, and its meaning has changed over time. [3] Its etymology traces back to the languages produced by the children—often of mixed race—born to migrants in French-speaking colonies during the 1600s and 1700s. These creole languages, like Haitian Kreyòl or the Cajun spoken in Louisiana, blended a French vocabulary with indigenous and African grammatical forms; over time, the colonies developed foodways, religious practices, festivals, music and dance which similarly blended cultural signifers of Old and New World origin into a composite creole culture. Some, although not all, scholars consider African American vernacular English to have originated long ago as a creole language, and it was in that linguistic context that the term was borrowed in the 1980s by Ulf Hannerz of the University of Stockholm and other cultural anthropologists to describe the cultural mixing they seek to analyze in a rapidly globalizing economy. Jan Nederveen Pieterse suggests the process has been going on at least since the ancient Greeks encountered the Egyptians and Persians, but it has intensified and taken on new meaning as a result of globalization and what Nederveen Pieterse perceives as a “McDonaldization” of mass culture. [4] The concept, taken together with the related concept of hybridity, allows us to account for complex cultural interactions.

***

Hannerz first encountered the term creolization when he heard it from linguists doing eld research in the black community of Washington, D.C., and in the 1980s he developed the linguistic analogy as a metaphor for the fusion of American, African and European artistic forms he found in West Africa. “And so [when] I came to Nigeria,” he later told an interviewer, “[I] saw that there was all this wonderful new stuff being born out of global interconnectedness, very appealing new popular music, new folklore in a sense, new stories, new literature, new art forms. So I thought, this is the interesting story to tell out of this town—new culture is coming into being.” [6] As Hannerz told the story in monographs and academic papers on some of the cultural processes associated with globalization during the 1980s and 1990s, using creolization as a concep- tual framework, his metaphor caught on (Figure 1).

Hannerz’ language has not been uncontroversial, especially with scholars who argue that creole cultures cannot be analyzed apart from their colonial origin and therefore inherently involve racial and economic exploitation, but the concept does offer a way of analyzing how creative forms of expression can be blended by migrant cultures in a globalizing world. [7] Thomas Hylland Eriksen of Oslo University, for example, argues that the term “is used more or less interchangeably with hybridity” and, for example, that the “incorporation of Country & Western music into the standard cultural repertoire of rural southern Norway can accord- ingly be described as a process of creolization.” In another context, Eriksen says these cultural encounters are an “ongoing process” that does not always lead to “the establishment of a stable form.” Creolization, he adds, is often accompanied by a process of decreolization, which occurs when “a creolized idiom is ‘purifed’ and made similar to a metropolitan or ‘high culture’ form.” Over time, he says, these cultural encounters can result in a “post-creole continuum” in which elements of both cultures remain in flux. [8] I would submit that what Americans of the early to mid- 1900s described as a melting pot can also be interpreted as a post-creole culture in which immigrant forms are blended into a new cultural idiom.

***

Cultural Hybridity, Anglo-American Hymns and European Chorales in a Pioneer Swedish Immigrant Singing School: Presentation at the Conference on Illinois History, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, Springfield, October 5, 2017

[…] In his magisterial book The Old Religion in a New World, [Mark] Noll, who writes from an evangelical standpoint, notes [the Rev. LP] Esbjörn’s progress from pietist “discontent with religion in Sweden,” to his defense of “strict confessional Lutheranism” and “an unaltered Augsburg Confession,” and finds him typical of orthodox Lutherans, mostly recent immigrants, who “rejected the lessons of an active, hundred-year tradition of negotiating a livable compromise between Old World Traditions and New World realities” and turned back to an essentially European theology and congregational polity.43 Esbjörn’s emphasis on Swedish over American hymns would seem to fit that pattern.

But I believe it fits another pattern even better. Esbjörn’s notebooks would seem to be evidence of a creolized, or hybridized, approach to congregational singing in the little Swedish-American congregations springing up in Chicago and the little immigrant settlements in the upper Midwest. As used by Ulf Hannerz of the University of Stockholm and other cultural anthropologists, the term describes the cultural mixing they seek to analyze in a rapidly globalizing economy. “Creole cultures—like creole languages—are intrinsically of mixed origin, the confluence of two or more widely separated historical currents, in what is basically a center/periphery relationship,” says Hannerz. Taking his metaphor from the creole languages of colonial history – and the mixture of African, French and Anglo-American cultures in Louisiana – he broadens the concept to a generalized process whereby any subordinate, or peripheral, culture creates hybrid forms that modify its dominant, or central, cultural norms and thereby “put things together in new ways.” The resulting blended, or creolized, culture is neither one nor the other. Hannerz admits that it’s a metaphor, and he cautions, “when you take an intellectual ride on a metaphor, it is important that you know where to get off.” 44 But it’s a useful metaphor. As Esbjörn jotted down a mixture of Swedish, Reformation-era German and Anglo-American hymns for his seminarians, he was on the periphery of more than one cultural center – I count at least three – and the resulting blend was something new, adapted to the needs of Swedish pastors out on the American frontier in the upper Mississippi Valley, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

So, in Hannerz’ terms, the little handmade notebooks Esbjörn made to teach congregational singing to his seminarians in Springfield and Chicago are evidence of a creolized Swedish-American culture growing up out on the Midwestern prairies and the North Side of Chicago. We are dealing with something more complex here than a melting pot in which Swedes lost their cultural identity.

***

Thomas Hylland Eriksen of Oslo University describes this kind of trajectory as a process of creolization and decreolization, resulting in a “post-creole continuum” in which elements of the dominant and peripheral cultures remain in flux.46 I would submit that what American historians of the early to mid-1900s described as a melting pot can also be interpreted as a post-creole continuum. [Daniel] Grimminger, a Lutheran pastor who teaches at Kent State University, posits a similar evolution in which the Pennsylvania Dutch went through a process of adaptation, acculturation and amalgamation as “German culture and folkways of these early Americans gave way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to Anglo-American dominance.” Even after the Pennsylvania Lutherans he studied were thoroughly amalgamated into the dominant Anglo culture, however, he found traces of their ethnic heritage, like eating pork and sauerkraut at New Year’s and “linguistic peculiarities peculiar to the [Pennsylvania] Dutch culture (like ‘redding up the table’ when making it ready for guests)” in Lutheran churches of neighboring Ohio.47 To which a Scandinavian-American of the upper Midwest can only say yeah sure, you betcha.

Similarly, the Swedes of Rock Island and the upper Midwest have long been thoroughly amalgamated into American culture, but traces of a creolized Swedish-American culture remain. Swedish “potato baloney” (potatiskorv) still graces the table at Christmas, although lutfisk tends to be honored now mostly in jokes, and Swedish-style pickled herring is widely available in the Hy-Vee supermarkets of the upper Midwest. Visitors to Bishop Hill, a former religious colony 25 miles from Rock Island, can stock up on Swedish rye bread and lingonberry preserves or welcome in the spring with an annual Valborg Bonfire and Weiner Roast, neatly combining Swedish and American customs. In Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, the Midsommarfest street festival brings in bands and vendors from all over the city. In 2017 it hosted an Equality Rally bringing together the city’s LGBTQ community “for a gathering of celebration, solidarity and mobilization,” as well as more traditional activities like dancing around a maypole set up at North Clark and Foster Avenue.

None of these developments are limited to Swedes. As I was writing an early draft of this paper, the Greek Orthodox church in Springfield was busily promoting an “Opa Greek Fest” featuring gyros, saganaki and spinach pie with cooking and Greek dance lessons, and a Friday night “Music and Mezze” concert. I suspect research similar to mine will find other ethnic communities situated similarly on a post-creole continuum. When I was in graduate school at an American state university, I regularly attended the Diwali and Republic Day dinners hosted by the Indian students’ association – I would posit that their menus were also undergoing a process of creolization, as foods from different regions of India were combined on the same menu and the spices were toned down, I am told, for the Americans who attended. For a long time we used the metaphor of a “melting pot” for such phenomena, but I am not sure that it put enough emphasis on the global reach of cultural diversity in a pluralistic society. Especially in a time of more-or-less open hostility to immigrants, I would suggest that we need another metaphor.

In 1972 ethnomusicologist Nicholas Tawa of the University of Massachusetts Boston spoke with members of an international folk dance ensemble, who told him, “Everyone comes from a culture of some kind. And if you haven’t one or can’t remember one, you can share someone else’s.” Tawa studied the music of 20th-century Syrian-Lebanese, Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Italian immigrants on the East Coast over a period of years; this conversation, and others like it, led him to reflect on broad patterns of the assimilation and retention of ethnic music in America:  

The complete sociocultural boiling-down of all new immigrants in the American melting pot so that a uniform hundred-percent Americanism is the only part that remains has proved a false theory. What has actually resulted is a stew-like mixture of heterogeneous ingredients, none of them ready to dissolve yet all of them adding to the flavor of the whole.48

Throw in some potatiskorv (but probably not the lutfisk), and a sociocultural stewpot makes a good metaphor. Hidden between the lines in Lars Paul Esbjörn’s little Swedish notebooks are some of the ingredients of that stew-like mixture.

***

Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860, Conference on Illinois History, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Springfield, October 7, 2020

In recent years, cultural anthropologists have used metaphors of hybridity, bricolage and creolization for the phenomenon. Especially influential has been Ulf Hannerz of the University of Stockholm, who borrowed the term creolization from linguists, to whom it signifies a colonial language with mixed new- and old-world antecedents, usually reflecting different racial and cultural backgrounds; Hannerz uses it to describe a generalized process whereby subordinate, or peripheral, cultures create hybrid forms that “put things together in new ways.” Like other students of the phenomenon, he quotes post-colonialist novelist Salman Rushdie, who once said his writing “rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” While creolization theory can be seen as a post-colonial reaction to what cultural anthropologist Jan Nederveen Pieterse perceives as a “McDonaldization” of global culture, processes of creolization and decreolization have been going on at least since the ancient Greeks encountered the Egyptians and Persians and continues to the present. [6]

Hannerz’ metaphor has been used to describe hybrid cultural forms including New Orleans jazz; the Haitian Kreyòl language; French colonial architecture in early Illinois; the blended ecclesiastical culture developed by Russian Orthodox Alaska Natives; and the “polkabilly” music of mixed German, Czech and Scandinavian dance bands. While the term originated with mixed-race cultures in Latin America and the Caribbean, folklorist James P. Leary says it applies just as well to northern European immigrants in the upper Midwest, whose “musical interactions have long been distinguished by egalitarianism, by freewheeling accommodation and blending across complex boundaries.” Leary adds. “Here reside North Coast creoles.” [7] In that broader context, shorn of its post-colonial connotations, we can say without hesitation that Swedish- and Norwegian-American Lutherans of the mid-19th century put together a bit of this and a bit of that, thereby combining European state church with Anglo-American denominational and frontier revivalist practices in new ways to form voluntary religious associations without government assistance. The result was something that wasn’t quite like any of its antecedents.

Works Cited

Mireille Delmas-Marty, “Creolizing the idea of humanity,” UNESCO Courier, 2018-2 https://en.unesco.org/courier/2018-2/creolizing-idea-humanity.

Tracy McNicoll, ” ‘Créolisation’: Candidates clash on immigration, assimilation and identity,” France 24, Feb. 15, 2022 https://www.france24.com/en/france/20220215-cr%C3%A9olisation-as-right-wingers-tout-assimilation-m%C3%A9lenchon-levies-creole-counterpunch.

Wikipedia articles on creolization, filé powder, Édouard Glissant, jambalaya, Louisiana Creole people, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Salman Rushdie.

Citations are available as follows: My article, ” ‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925,” appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. I have donated electronic copies of my papers, “Cultural Hybridity, Anglo-American Hymns and European Chorales in a Pioneer Swedish Immigrant Singing School” and “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860,” to the Birger Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois; and I am happy to make PDF files available on request.

[Published Aug. 26, 2022]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s