Strangers of Another Family

“Is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family? With which shall we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?”––Thomas Jefferson

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s entry into the American Union, even if some would say jokingly that not everyone has gotten the news. Remaining faithful to our image of celebrating life’s every moment, 2012 promises to provide us with several opportunities to gather together for fairs, fêtes and festivals to affirm our American identity our way. It goes without saying that Louisianians are proud to be part of the United States, even if every now and then someone threatens, with ambiguous irony, to start an independence movement. The Bicentennial Commission fittingly presided over by the true American hero and proud Creole, Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, is coordinating the activities designed to make the rich history of our state better known. Throughout the year, many events will take place to commemorate the completion of our transition from bleu, blanc, rouge to red, white and blue.

Before being able to become the 18th state, Louisiana had to satisfy several criteria, notably the use of English in its official proceedings and the defining of its borders. The Louisiana Enabling Act of 1811 specified that Louisiana’s laws had to be promulgated in the same language as the Constitution of the United States. The Louisiana Legislature began introducing English but without at the same time entirely abandoning French. Louisiana functioned completely in both languages until the Civil War and partially so even today. And in reading elsewhere in this act, one realizes its intention to dilute as much as possible the influence of these “strangers of another family” in the establishment of the new state’s borders. For example, the addition of the region known as the Florida parishes, settled in large part by Anglophones and in large part not part of the original Louisiana territory, also speaks to this desire to counterbalance French influence. It is not surprising that the struggle between the acceptance of the new status and the continuation of the old lasts to this day.

It is true that even today one can often hear the word Américain, in French, to talk about our fellow citizens of Anglo-Saxon origin. I had a good friend that summed up this political and linguistic schizophrenia in the sublime sentence, “I am American, mais je suis pas américain.” Nonetheless, the transition period between the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the state’s creation in 1812 is one of an assimilation process which, as we know, is not quite complete and probably never will be. Besides, and in spite of the decline in the frequency of spoken French, we can even speak of the reverse assimilation, of Américains toward our way of living, our famous joie de vivre.  One only has to notice the number of tourists who visit our state and end up moving here. This is the surest sign that the culture will survive. Becoming American is not a destination but a process. Every ethnic group becomes American in its own way, of course, but I am not a little proud to see that we have “Louisianafied” many an Américain of our own.

Even though he was a Francophile and a Francophone, Thomas Jefferson, as this quote seems to indicate, preferred speaking French in Paris rather than in New Orleans. Did the five years he spent in France as foreign minister at the beginning of the French Revolution leave a bad taste in his mouth and contribute to his insistence upon a complete transformation of Louisiana into an English-speaking state? I wonder what he would say if he were still here today and noticed that in spite of his efforts to absorb the Francophone population we still speak French in Louisiana and even more and more for some time. Of course we cannot know for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he, too, would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” – in French

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