1. African Retentions in New World Slave Dialects
Much scholarship about Africans and their enslaved North American descendants presumes the latter’s culture retained almost nothing distinctively African (save for the Gullah/Geechee communities). Yet, the more accurate reason for the lack of scholarship on this topic was captured by the preface in “The Yoruba Diaspora in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” by Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs.
“Despite contacting several scholars of U.S. African American history, no historian
answered our call for a chapter. In many ways this is indicative of a historiographical
phenomenon particular to American history. U.S. historiography has focused almost
exclusively on issues of race, racism, and an overarching racial consciousness among the
enslaved and their descendants, while largely ignoring the specific cultural, social and
historical legacies of specific African cultural groups.”
Today, correcting for this historiographical phenomenon is compounded by the 250 years of forced assimilation into mainstream American culture. Underneath the blatant racism lies a somewhat legitimate basis for the lack of scholarship concerning African retentions in theses cultures: ignorance. To root Ebonics or Kouri-Vini in African culture would require one to intimately know the various cultures that span the continent. However, recent works such as “Africans in Colonial Louisiana” by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, “Africanism in American Culture” by Joseph Halloway and “Africans and African Americans” by Nemata Amelia Blyden are endeavoring in a type of Sankofa, knowingly or not, to rectify history by piecing together Africa’s influence in North America.
i. Sankofa Since Day One
As I begin this post, I can’t help but remember some random article I came across but never read that said the leanings we had toward or away from certain ideas was actually hardwired in our DNA. I’m not saying the article had merit but as bleak and incorrect as it sounded it made me think about how funny it is that we turn out to be who we become.
In my lifetime there’s always been a name or a joke about the Black American who is all of a sudden “into” Africa. In my family, the woke afro-centric eye-roll at Thanksgiving reminding us that this is not our holiday, tis me. This is how people perceive me despite that I grew up in, what I think, is a typical African-American household. We were NOT white or even too boisterous about or attached to being “American”. Yet, we also were categorically NOT African. Africans sold us. Africans, thought they are better than us. Africans viewed us as dumb and judge us because we don’t know our continental roots. To Africans, we were not Africans. So…fuck ’em and fuck claiming them as part of our identity.
Nevertheless, from this not quite American and no longer African household came me: a Black girl who wears shirts declaring “I AM AFRICAN”, learns Igbo and writes random ass blogs in 1 am about possible African linguistic retentions in Black Diasporic languages. It’s funny though because most people attribute African centered political shifts by Diasporans to be an early to mid-twenties fad that they eventually phase our of, but low-key this is who I’ve always been.
When me and my lil’ cousin were younger than 12 y.o. we were obsessed with dolls. Our dolls were our family, our kids, nieces and the reason we worked 3 imaginary jobs and married different men every other week- to provide for our doll family. LOL! On random days, we’d have a gigantic family dinner I termed a “Guinea Pig”. In preparation for those meals we’d take our imaginary grocery carts into the housing complex parking foursquare next door and we’d make groceries (yes, imaginary ones) for our Guinea Pig. While we shopped for imaginary collards greens and rice we’d speak in “African”. Now, there is no such tongue and there wasn’t then. All we were doing was communicating for 10 or 15 mins in utter gibberish with each other. But at such a unripe age, hailing from a house of people who were “not Africans”, I somehow decided my cousin and I would speak “African” while shopping for our imaginary Sunday dinner.
Why I called our family dinner a “Guinea Pig” escapes me. But I know I never liked animals (save for cats) and surely not rats or the folks I call their cousins- guinea pigs. More importantly, I do not believe young me would have created a made up family feast and named it after a decrepit vermin (can you tell I DO NOT LIKE GUINEA PIGS). In retrospect I wonder if it was because I’d heard Africa referred to as “Guinea” or heard of “Guinea Bissau” and in doing a bit of word play combined it with pig to represent the gluttonous nature of our imaginary feast. Mo pa koné kwa mo té fé ça or I don’t know why I did it, but I mention it to illustrate that even though I grew up in a home where our identity was not consciously rooted in our Africaness I still created a world for my cousin and I where it was; albeit ever so slightly. And I wonder, how many other modern day, dashiki totin’, Africa loving, too woke for they own britches millennial Black American children did something similar and long before they ever discovered their African-American studies program in college.
My journey isn’t a fad, a trend or a phase. I, and probably many others, were born in two worlds: our old and our new; and were intended to sift through the pain, suffering, self-hate and colonizing bullshit to merge these worlds in betterment of our peoples future. This is my attempt to contribute to that calling in a small way.
Here, we’ll explore African-American and Afro-Creole Louisianan culture. I will reference works of established academics and authors from which I draw my own theories and conclusions. Some of my opinions stem from my own knowledge base of Ebonics, Louisiana Creole, French and various African languages. In such cases, I am not pulling from established works but think the conclusions are valid nonetheless.
While I believe the information detailed here is ripe with opportunity for academic study, I am neither an academic, historian nor linguist. My ultimate goal is to document my findings so other like minded “nwa efuola” or lost children can tangibly share in their deeply rooted ancestral cultures with the realization that these “bastardized” traditions we’ve inherited are in-fact beautiful cultural extensions of survival. What we eat, how we speak, the way we live should be exalted as opposed to lived in the shadows and exhibited with shame.
ii. Ummm…What is Creole?
In America today, “Creole” tends indicate a person of enslaved African descent whose genealogy extended into European colonized Louisiana. They could have been freed before or enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation (it is worth mentioning that there is some burgeoning conversation on these identities that falls outside the focus of the piece). For our purposes “Creole” (the people and the language) refers to the descendants of Africans enslaved and the culture they founded and maintained in Louisiana throughout various colonial masters and America’s purchase of the land. Regardless of the politics of Creole identity, it is a distinct and unintelligible language from French (and its sister dialects Louisiana French or Cajun…which is a topic of additional controversy and also outside our purview).
Now look, I ain’t tryna start no fights. The term’s use has varied over the centuries and has undeniably been used to refer to non-African peoples. Internationally, the term “creole” is typically associated with the languages and cultures that arose under French and Portuguese enslavement of Africans in the colonized lands of the New World and Africa. Most people inextricably associate creole languages with French linguistic patterns and styling and those who do so are not categorically incorrect. However, much scholarship also exists on the African retentions within many Caribbean creoles, yet less effort has been dedicated to finding connections between African languages and Kouri-Vini (aka Louisiana Creole). Possible pin-points of that influence is what I’m discussing here. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Let us begin.
“Mo or Moi, that is the Question”
Every American is probably familiar with the French phrase “voulez veux coucher avec moi ce soir” and what it means. But in case you aren’t, the phrase was popularized by the infamous Moulin Rouge piece and translates to “would you like to sleep with me tonight”. In Kouri-Vini (KV) aka Louisiana Creole “moi” or “me” evolved into “mo” and translates to several self-indicators i.e. “I”, “mine” and “myself”.
Intuitively people assume KV’s “mo” is rooted in the French “moi”. As a wannabe polyglot who is familiar with French, that just never sat right with me. I literally sat up at night thinking “How did my ancestors get “mo” from “moi”? Like were they just not trying?!” To be clear, I hope they weren’t trying because I support the bastardization of our colonizer’s tongues…but I digress. I was also intrigued because many other creolizations of “moi” are “mwa” “mwen” “mweh” and “mwin”, which, phonetically, makes sense to me. Nonetheless, I shrugged it off.
Now, another lil’ background story. I’ve began learning the Igbo language about 3 years ago. During that time I had Yoruba friends who were playfully upset I didn’t pick their language to learn. Jokingly, as punishment they would frequently write to me in Yoruba. As such, I gained a perfunctory familiarity with the Yoruba language. Then one day, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and up popped a Yoruba learning and account. It was then I remembered that, “mo” in the Yoruba language also means “I”. For example:
LAC/KV: Mo gin despommes.
French: J’ai une pomme.
Yoruba: Mo ni eso
Upon this discovery I wondered, “…was there a distinctly African linguistic presence in KV that survived 500 years of various colonizers and a continuous influx of African tribes?” Clearly, I answered the question I posed to myself in the affirmative. At the very least it opened by mind to the idea. However, many skeptics will retort with the fact that Louisiana’s enslaved population overwhelmingly hailed from the Senegambia. As such, the likelihood that the Yoruba’s presence in Louisiana would have been influential enough to imprint itself on such an essential word in KV is unlikely.
However, in “The Yoruba Diaspora in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” Falola and Child’s provide evidence that although the Yoruba didn’t constitute the majority of Africans forced into enslavement in the new world, their impact on diasporic cultures is one of the strongest therein. Louisiana Voodoo is one of the areas this phenomenon may be observed. Voodoo or Vodun is a religious system originating from the Fon people who do not inhabit the Senegambia region and traditionally have resided closer to Nigeria than Senegal or the Gambia. Today, we use these terms to identify African religions, but words like “Vodun” and “Ifa” (the spiritual system of the Kingdom of Benin) are a result of Western influence. Precolonial Africans, generally, didn’t engage in religion in the way Westerners think of it. “Vodun” wasn’t the name of the Dahomey’s religion, it was the name of their God. Similarly, “ifa” referred to the system of divination used in Yoruba spiritual practices. Interesting enough, the Yoruba and Fon tribe both claim descent from Odua. These close ties resulted in Vodun and Ifa sharing a pantheon of deities.
Perhaps, the impact of Vodun in Louisiana is arguably the impact of the Yoruba. Especially given the similarities between Dahomey and Benin cultural practices I think the merger of the two during enslavement in Louisiana was more than possible. As such, Voodoo’s strong presence in Louisiana may be seen as not only Dahomey’s influence, but that of the Kingdom of Benin as well. Thereby demonstrating the plausibility of Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs claim on “mo” in Louisiana.
So maybe, on some day in 1781 A.D., some enslaved Yoruba and Fon were minding their business while engaging in their shared spiritual practices when some French dude walked up and ask them what they were doing, he said, “Qu’ est-que tu faire?”. Not remembering the French man’s word for “God” the African simply said “Mo fe (fais) Vodun”, the name of his God. The French man walked away and whenever he saw Africans engaging in such practices he said “oh look, they’re doing their voodoo again” (but in French). To be clear, this is an entirely made up conversation. But albeit fictional, I think it may plausibly capture the way transmissions of words and concepts happen between people who speak different languages.
As a bonus in Wolof the example statement would be “Ma soxlo pom” because “ma(a)” is the generally accepted word for “I” or “me” (“dama” is also a variation which is explained by a conjugation rule above my pay grade to explain). While the Yoruba’s numbers were small the Wolof’s presence in the record is indisputable. I have less to say here because I learned this information in passing. However, I will say I think, in a world were some folks is saying “moi”, dem other ones is saying “mo” and these ones is saying “ma”, the possibility that “mo” is an African retention seems even more plausible to me.
Nonetheless, for some my assertions may seem precarious. However, in response I’d say that perspective is key. We are so programmed to view enslaved African sub-cultures with a western supremacist lens. But why accept this lens as conclusory when the exact word exists in an African language of those enslaved in Louisiana? Why always default to the colonizer’s culture being the only tangible source of our identity? Perhaps “mo” is simply derived from “moi” (phonetically pronounced “mwa”), but I think it is equally fair to conclude Africans in Louisiana found a familiar substitute to their enslaver’s “moi” in the Yoruba “mo”.
“Jire! Jire! Jire!”
“Jire” or “testify” is type of music stemming from Louisiana and is considered the predecessor to Zydeco music. However, upon listening to Jire, its similarity to the work songs of enslaved Africans in North America is unmistakable. Both groups, LAC and AA used work songs to power through their grueling and monotonous slave tasks. While these songs remain a prominent part of AA cultural fabric today, they are less so in LAC culture today. Nonetheless, they have been documented for posterity, one in particular was captured by George Washington Cable.
An-a-que, an’ o’ bia
Bia ‘tail-la, Que-re-que
Nal-le oua, Au-Monde
Au Tap o Te, Aupe to te
Au que re que, Bo.
Although some KV or French may be peppered throughout this song, it is unintelligible to French and Creole speakers and thus is believed to be a tune carried over from Africa and still present in Louisiana in the 1800’s. The language has yet to be identified but keep in mind that this song was captured by ears illiterate of the language the tune was carried in and written phonetically. It may be worth noting that I do know that “bia” in the Igbo language of Southern Nigeria means “come” and slaves from the Bight of Biafra were not uncommon in French Louisiana. Nevertheless, I cannot place the origin of or translate this song. Its presence is no less important though as it illustrates the presence of an African language in Louisiana’s during the 19th century.
*update* After posting this piece, fellow WordPress blogger AnaElrich pointed out that in the Sranan language, spoken Surinam, “Ana-e, mi waka te, mi si sani” translates to I walked all over, I saw things”. Furthermore, in his Lexicon podcast “The Incredible Story of the Traveling Creole” Jlinguist John McWhorter argues that, originating in dungeons for holding the enslaved along the coast of West Africa, Sranan today is likely the language most akin to the language system created from the initial contact between colonizing Europeans and native Africans tribes. Thus, I think there may be some teeth to dig out from what Ms. AnaElrich pointed out! To learn more about Surinam’s beautiful culture of resistance check out her blog “They’re Connected…!”.
“He, She or It – Pronouns that don’t Throw People into a Fit“
In American vernacular English and its predecessors, the use of gendered pronouns is strictly enforced. Recent movements by queer people have brought the conversation on gender pronouns to a new point of contention. Gender is being argued to exist on a spectrum and folks are demanding that their pronouns of choice, whether he, she, it or they, be not only respected but normalized. This cultural shift has created fierce opposition and in this fury I stumbled across a piece “Fuck your gender norms: how Western colonization brought unwanted binaries to Igbo culture” by Chidera Ihejirika.
As Ihejirika’s title clearly conveys, she asserts that pronoun binaries in Igbo are a Western imposition. She argues that Igbo language uses the same pronoun for both sexes. Resultingly, her mother played fast in loose with pronouns in English during her childhood. To illustrate this point Ihejirika recounts an instance where her mother referred to her brother as her sister,
This struck me as interesting because Kouri-Vini’s utilization of pronouns is also gender blind. In KV, both “he” and “she” and “it” are expressed as “li”. This could be a convergent linguistic evolution. However, KV’s overarching influences stem from Spanish and French (and to a lesser extent English). All of which are languages heavily reliant on the feminization and masculation of pronouns and other words. However, the French do have a cognate for “li”. Dans Français, “le” can be used for “it”, but it is dependent on the context. This means that “le” may be feminized as “la”. Even I concede to the possiblity that “li” derived from “le”. However, the gendered nature did not pass over. Consequently, I wondered if KV’s rejection of heavily gendered language was an African retention. It’s example time!!!
LAC/KV: Li va/kouri a magazin.
She will go to the store.
He is sick.
I want it.
French: Elle ira au magasin.
She will go to the store.
Il est malade.
He is sick.
Je le veux.
I want it.
Igbo: Ọ ga-aga ụlọ ahịa
He will go to the store.
Ọ na-arịa ọrịa
She is sick.
Chọrọ m ya/ha.
I want it.
The sentence constructions above are translated by yours truly. While the sentence structuring may be imperfect I am 100% certain about the pronoun usage therein. Additionally, other African languages also do not distinguish between “he” and “she”. A few examples follow, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Twi: He/She – Ono
It – Eno
Yoruba: He/She/It – O/Won
Swahili: She/He – Yeye
I am intimately familiar with the Igbo language, less so with Yoruba and Swahili and Twi…but I dabble (lol). However, my research has indicated that the lack of gendered pronouns is a common occurrence in these languages and others throughout West and Central African languages (but not all). Including some in the Senegambia region, such as Wolof.
*update* After writing this section I discovered a recording in old French. The recording contained an English translation and use the word “li” which appeared to be used to mean “he” or “him”. I found no instance of it being used to also refer to women. However, “lui” may be the predecessor or progeny of old French’s “li” and it (lui) is used interchangeably with either sex. But, it is used in a very specific context as the third person singular personal pronoun when referring to an indirect object. The specificity of French’s “li/lui” doesn’t seem to make it likely that this hyper-contextualized usage is the reason for the genderless “li” in KV. Nonetheless, it was interesting and demonstrates the possibility of an alternate origin for the ungendered “li” in KV.
“Louisiana Voodoo, the Misnomer“
As with many enslaved African diasporic cultures, Louisiana’s spiritual system is a mélange of traditional African spiritual practices. Voodoo, a phonetic corruption of Dahomean Vodun, is only one of the systems encompassed in Louisiana Voodoo, yet the phrase is exclusively used to refer to the African syncretized system.
I’ll never forget watching the Hulu series “The Act” and hearing a white woman from Louisiana discuss a necklace from her mama as a “gris-gris”. In response to her friend asking her what a “gris-gris” she said it was “Louisiana talk”. Little Creole me was infuriated! It was Creole! It was an African word! How dare she generalize it as “Louisiana talk”! I couldn’t imagine explaining my use of “hola” as “California talk” when it is whole ass Spanish that I picked up living amongst the Mexican community! Yet here we were.
Though I knew enough to know what a “gris-gris” was then, admittedly, I am not a practitioner of any African Traditional & Diasporic Religion. Nor have I ever been. Thus, I have minimal insight as to the cultural retentions of this practice. However, scholars (real ones, not like me) have captured a few of the faith’s linguistic retentions.
In 1773, a French colonial court transcript reflects someones great+ grandparent mentioning a “gris-gris” in open court. Antoin Simon Le Page also captured the presence and power of the gris-gris in 1774 when he dismissively deemed enslaved Africans as “superstitious” for their attachment to “prejudices and charms they call gris-gris”. Hall asserts “gris-gris” stems from the Mande word “gerregerys”. Many others words are used to refer to religious amulets and charms in KV. “Zinzin” is a direct holdover from Bambara as is “wanga” or “ouanga” from various Central African languages. Many sources abound of the meaning of these words, but because these are secretive practices that are usually being defined by outsiders I’m not sure how much credence to give their definitions.
Regardless, these word’s African origins are documented and the diasporic usage in KV is tied to Voodoo or “magical” practices. In fact, so powerful were these “superstitions” and “prejudices” that the historical record is flagrant with just how much Europeans feared them. Around the world, slave rebellions were being led by conjure-men or root workers. White slave owners feared African spirituality and connected it with Africans unifying and fighting back against their oppressors. Lafcadio Hearn, and others who wrote about Voodoo in Louisiana in the late 19th c, said,
of most intelligent families among our French speaking population who share this opinion.”.
Returning now to one of my earlier statements, I’d like to clarify- I loved Hulu’s “The Act”. Additionally, it was based on a true story. So, the conversation about “Louisiana talk” could have been a real life event Hulu simply wanted to recapture. Furthermore, Louisiana is kinda seen as this weird place that other Americans don’t quite understand. Hell, some Louisianans don’t understand the history of their state’s distinct culture. Thus, in the context of the conversation, brushing something off as “Louisiana talk” makes sense. Despite all that, when “The Act” classified gris-gris as “Louisiana talk” it, albeit perhaps innocently, failed to properly communicate gris-gris’s power and origination. Gris-gris is not Louisiana talk, it is an African retention in the Kouri-Vini language of Louisiana Creole.
2. Sis,You Tried it: Am I Grasping at Straws?
Some may wonder the likelihood of an Anglo-Saxon colonized tribes linguistic impact on a French based creole such as Kouri-Vini. However, the slave trade’s pinnacle and inception was well before Europe’s scramble for Africa. Too, I think it is not insignificant that the many of the foregoing tribes are today literally encapsulated within “French Africa”. Though the French undoubtedly pulled a substantial amount of Africans they intended to enslave from the Senegambia, many simply came through the Senegambia. Furthermore, extant borders are typically useless in understanding precolonial Africa; and while many of the tribes used as a reference herein are predominantly outside of the areas heavily associated with the French traffic in African bodies, tribal identities spill across African present borders.
Though the Yoruba homeland is considered Nigeria, there are also those ancestrally native to Burkina Faso and Benin; the Ashanti who migrated to modern day Cote d’Ivoire, before they knew what a French man was, and to this day identify as Ashanti; and Igbo with people who claim indigente extending all the way from Nigeria to Cameroon. So while some of the tribes mentioned herein may not be the first ones you think of when you think of Louisiana, remember they share a history of kingdoms, cultural exchange, warfare and trade.
Too, Africans almost always sold members of other tribes to Europeans as opposed to their own. The likelihood that the Bambara, Fulani and Malinke who lived in close proximity to the Yoruba, Ashanti, Igbo etc. could have captured, traded and transported the tribal members belonging to groups the French were not in direct contact with seems, in my opinion, extremely high. Nonetheless, the European influences on these languages cannot be denied, unfortunately. Nor am I denying their influences.
Also, I, could be wrong about everything. But to be clear, the facts I espouse are academically sound. The only thing at issue is the conjecture I deduced from said facts. So, at the very least you learned a little about continental African languages and religion, and an endangered diasporic culture.
3. Concluding Thoughts on Africanisms in KV
I am not a linguist or a historian. I read. I read a lot and I’ve been learning African languages for the last few years. As such, I found what I thought was food for thought in the least and grounds for further rigorous study at best. So what does this all mean? Possibly nothing. Or, perhaps, everything.
With each sale, all the impositions placed upon us and every subsequent generation born away from their homeland and under the whip we lost a certain knowledge of self in losing knowledge of our past. My overarching theme here was to highlight the remnants of our original identities within Creole Louisiana. Nameless though most our connections may be, it isn’t too late to remember. I truly believe our ultimate freedom won’t come until the words of our ancestors flow across our tongues with the power and the Nile, the memory of a Timbuktu scholar and the rhythm of the Griot.
“Some Disclaimers (paske Louisiana Creoles be Wildin’)“
Ça isit is my personal blog and If you haven’t figured by now, I love, love, love Africa and its diaspora. So much so that often I’m accused of “seeing Africa everywhere”. Still, I am a graduate school- er, graduate. I, of course, do not use that to legitimate anything I say herein (it also didn’t properly teach me how to use a semi colon); however, I do think it at least buttresses the claim that I am very aware of scholarly bias, confirmation bias in particular. It, to a degree, can never be fully eradicated and especially in a situation such as this. Yet, to account for my bias I have tried to clearly articulate when I am opining and when I am citing facts confirmed by veritable scholars in relatively easily ascertainable works. A list of which will be located at the end of this piece.
Moreover, I am well aware that the conversation concerning Louisiana Creole identity can be a very touchy one. While I am asserting that the backbone (if not almost entirety) of what is denoted as Creole culture and language today was created by African slaves (and I don’t think that point is a very controversial one), I am not asserting who is or isn’t Creole. Although I have defined it for the purview of this post, identity is complicated and I mean, at the end of the day, who am I to tell you what you are?
3. Ishka Parte De … Until Part Two
Albeit often denigrated as a broken or backward tongue, intricate scholarship exists on Kouri-Vini, though limited. Yet KV’s cousin, Ebonics, has been given even less respect by post-bellum scholarship. In “Part II: Thick Lips – Africanisms in Ebonics”, we will explore a culture people looooooove to state has no foundation in or connection to Africa: African-American culture. That piece is in the works and will be woven into this post. This’ll be fun!
4. Referenced Works
 “The Yoruba Diaspora in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” by Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs. 2005. Indiana University Press.
 “Louisiana Creole Dialect” James F. Brossard. 1942. Louisiana State University press.
 Scholars, travelers and many Louisiana natives, such as Thomas Klinger, George Cable, Alcee Fortier and Gwedolyn Midlo Hall, assert that Kouri-Vini is a language with multiple influences spoken by enslaved Africans.
 Dictionary of Louisiana Creole, Albert Valdman
 Instagram @Yoruba_Lessons
 “The Yoruba Diaspora in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” by Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs. 2005. Indiana University Press. Page xi.
 “African Religions: A Very Short Introduction” by Jacob K. Olupona.
 ”Africans in Colonial Louisiana” Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. Louisiana State University Press. 1992.
 “Fuck your gender norms: How Western Colonisation brought unwanted binaries to Igbo culture” by Chidera Ihejirika (https://gal-dem.com/colonialism-nigeria-gender-norms-lgbtq-igbo/)