Louisiana links blacks to their French roots

The state has recruited French teachers from the Caribbean and Africa to promote Creole heritage.

When Alain Avognon scans his Louisiana classroom, he sees the descendants of his fellow Africans.

A native of the tiny coastal nation of Benin, the French teacher knows that his homeland was at the center of the slave trade centuries ago - and he knows that many of those slaves ended up working the fields and groves of Louisiana. Today, he feels like he's bringing his fourth-graders closer to their ancestors, many of whom spoke some form of French.

"I look at them and I say to myself, 'I'm teaching them the language of their great-grandparents,' " says Mr. Avognon. "There's a French legacy here in New Orleans, and I'm trying to rejuvenate that legacy."

That legacy is the main reason Avognon came to Louisiana. In a new effort to encourage black children to study French, the state recruited him and more than 40 other black native French speakers to teach their language in south Louisiana's public schools. During the past two years, the search has spread to the Caribbean and even far-off countries like Cameroon.

This quest to rekindle pride in the past through language stretches well beyond the Bayou State. From the Navajos in Arizona and the Abenaki of Vermont to Hawaiians on the big island, groups are using ancestral tongues to strengthen ties to their cultural heritage.

Indeed, the new recruiting in Louisiana has been driven by the concern that blacks have become disconnected from the state's French culture. In the 19th century, a majority of south Louisiana's blacks spoke Creole, a language partly derived from French. But now, most black children are far removed from their families' French-speaking roots: They consider French a language for whites.

"A lot of these kids have never seen a black person speak French, so they don't identify with the language, they don't think it's for them," says W. Paul Cluse, president of Creole Inc. "Of course, teachers of European descent can do a great job with black kids, too, but having a black teacher can really kindle their interest in French."

Like many other cultural elements in the deep South, French in Louisiana developed differently among blacks and whites. Cajun French, which linguists consider a dialect of Parisian French, developed among whites who immigrated to rural south Louisiana from French Canada in the 1700s.

Creole was created out of the swirl of languages - French, Spanish, and the slaves' African tongues - that came together on Africa's Gold Coast and in the Caribbean at the height of the slave trade. Because so many slaves poured into the port of New Orleans in the 18th and 19th centuries, a distinct version of Creole developed in south Louisiana. Linguists consider Louisiana Creole a distinct language, with a grammar and vocabulary radically different from Parisian French.

The use of both Cajun French and Louisiana Creole steadily declined over the past century. The legislature created the state Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL, in 1968, soon after Life magazine predicted that the state's native varieties of French would die by the end of the 20th century.

So, after years of encouraging an "English only" policy in and out of the classroom, the state reversed itself and began trying to preserve and promote its French language and culture.

Since then, the organization can claim some success in its effort to encourage schoolchildren to study French.

But the increase in the number of French students has been mainly confined to the state's rural Cajun region, and most of those students are white. The effort to recruit West African and Caribbean teachers reflects the agency's desire to promote French among blacks.

Not everyone applauds CODOFIL's efforts, however. A few linguists say students should study Louisiana Creole, the state's homegrown language, not French.

These scholars point out that state law directs CODOFIL to preserve "the French language as found in Louisiana." Parisian French, they say, is just an import to Louisiana.

"CODOFIL should do what the law says - that's what public officials are supposed to do," says James Etienne Viator, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and a scholar of French in Louisiana.

Most educators and linguists, however, say that Louisiana Creole is a lost cause - the language is spoken by an unknown number of people in just four small areas around New Orleans. It will likely be dead in the next 50 years.

David Cheramie, the head of CODOFIL, says French provides students with a connection to their ancestors and a foreign language that could be useful later in life. He also hopes a strong French program will strengthen economic ties between Louisiana and the French-speaking countries of the Caribbean and West Africa.

Avognon is less concerned with the practical use of his native language. As he looks at his students, he sees New Orleans's French legacy. And he sees children who will keep that legacy alive.

"My goal is not just to teach French, but to turn the children into new French teachers," Avognon says. "I want to put this language into their hearts, so they'll grow up and teach it themselves."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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