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The Cajuns: Americanization of a People Paperback – March 12, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

Review

In The Cajuns, Shane K. Bernard relates the story of how one of America's most distinctive ethnic groups, the Acadians, or Cajuns, of South Louisiana, made the transformation from a close-knit people retaining the strong cultural ties of their heritage to a group that has become assimilated into the mainstream of American society. Bernard maintains that for much of their history the Cajuns were looked down upon, derided as "backward, ignorant, and un-American" (p. xvii). They spoke a separate language and lived a life-style that emphasized isolation and separation from traditional American culture.

World War II changed that. Thousands of Cajuns served in the armed forces, and for the first time many were exposed to outside influences. Those influences were, of course, accelerated by such postwar developments as the introduction of television into typical homes and the creation of the interstate highway system. In addition, young Cajuns found themselves strongly influenced by the advent of rock and roll music and other national cultural trends that led to a sharp reduction in traditional Cajun habits.

Most people think of the Cajuns as Caucasian, but in 1960, 28 percent of Acadiana's population was black. Although several violent incidents did mar the region's integration, in general it progressed quite peacefully. One reason lay in the large degree of racial intermingling that the region had historically experienced. Another lay in the strong support for desegregation by the Roman Catholic Church. Today, many African American Cajun families have surnames such as Doucette and Thierry. Many are as proud to proclaim themselves "coonasses" (p. 109) as their white counterparts.

By the early 1970s the Americanization of the Cajuns had proceeded so rapidly that some of the region's leaders organized efforts to preserve its rich heritage. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), for example, forcefully espoused the teaching of French in the schools and helped to restore some of the traditions and values of the Cajun language. CODOFIL also became known for its promotion of Cajun pride and empowerment. Cajun music and cuisine also became highly publicized features of this movement.

Bernard concludes that during the last sixty years of the twentieth century the meaning of the word Cajun was redefined from the popular perception of a lazy, shiftless, ignorant people; Cajuns came to be recognized as a unique and valued ethnic group. The core identity of the Cajuns has transformed itself into one of pride.

Bernard has done an excellent job in treating this neglected aspect of Cajun history. His sources include a wide variety of both primary and secondary works. His chapters on the influences of World War II and of the atomic age on the Cajuns are fine interpretations. He also gives full credit to the important roles played by women and blacks in the region. This reviewer highly recommends this immensely readable and informative volume to anyone interested in learning more about one of America's most fascinating peoples. -- The Journal of American History (June 2004)

Shane K. Bernard, a descendant of Acadian exiles who settled in Louisiana, wondered why in his lifetime, "after more than three hundred years in the New World, [his] family had suddenly lost the ability to speak French" (p. xii). He, and Cajuns in general, Bernard concludes, had been "Americanized." That transformation, which he thoroughly explores and examines, was "rapid, widespread . . . sparked by the onset of World War II and fueled by the convergence of several ensuing trends and events during the postwar period: the advent of mass communications, rampant consumerism, interstate highways, the jet age, educational improvements, even the rise of rock 'n' roll". . . . The strength of this study rests in the way Bernard follows the effects of postwar changes as they ripple through Cajun culture. . . . Bernard, as both scholar and participant, has written a thorough and interesting study of that transformation. -- Journal of Southern History (August 2004)

From the Inside Flap

A history of how Cajun culture coped with forces that threatened its uniqueness
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi (March 12, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1578065232
  • ISBN-13: 978-1578065233
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #285,793 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A Cajun from Lafayette, Louisiana, Shane K. Bernard holds a Ph.D. in History from Texas A&M University, as well as degrees in History and English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Bernard is often consulted by the media as an expert on south Louisiana history and culture. He has appeared on The History Channel, The Food Network, NPR's "Morning Edition," CNN, CNBC, the CBC, and the BBC, as well as in the pages of National Geographic.

He serves as official historian and curator to McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco brand products since 1868, and to its sister company, Avery Island, Inc., which traces its origin to 1818.

He is the son of 1950s rock 'n' roll (or swamp pop) musician Rod Bernard, whose hit songs include "This Should Go On Forever" and "Colinda."

Bernard lives in New Iberia, Louisiana, a short distance from the historic Bayou Teche.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Ken Fontenot VINE VOICE on January 10, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I first purchased Mr. Bernard's book, "The Cajuns: Americanization Of A People," I initially expected it to be a summary of the last few decades covering every festival, pilgrimmage to Nova Scotia, and Edwin Edwards. In other words, I expected it to be just like a lot of other things labeled Cajun these days: commercial. Although Edwards and Nova Scotia are covered in good detail, this book is anything but commercial. In fact, it can be utterly depressing at times.

When reading the book, one is introduced to a time period for Cajuns that is often glazed over or not even mentioned in Louisiana's colorful history. Most folks are told when the Cajuns landed in Louisiana and how the popularity of their food and "culture" brings loads of tourists and their money to the state. What we aren't told is how prejudice and hate almost forced this group into oblivion. Fortunately for us, this book brings these problems into focus.

To know that fellow countrymen ridiculed the Cajun soldiers for their weak English skills and considered them dumb isn't very good news. Things get bleaker as the decades pass. We are told how children are punished at school because they are speaking Cajun-French instead of English. We are given examples from prominent newspapers and other media in which Cajuns are considered backward, ignorant, stubborn, etc. We learn about the struggle over the term, "coonass," and how many people wear it as a badge of honor whereas others hate it entirely. We are told of how Cajuns are coupled with New Orleans, though New Orleans is one of the least Cajun places in Louisiana.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Byron N. Sonnier on June 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book changed my life! Mr. Bernard does a great job of putting the culture in perspective. His history is accurate, interesting and inspiring. As a full blooded cajun, living outside of Louisiana, this book really hit home. I'm convinced I must return and learn the cajun french language and encourage the rest of the younger people in my family to do the same. Thanks for a great book.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 18, 2003
Format: Paperback
It is like he interviewed my grandparents. This book is incredibly accurate and covers the most dynamic period of the Cajun history. This book should be mandatory reading for young people from this area. His coverage of the old perceptions regarding the Cajun people are particularly humorous and his arguments for the dilution of the French traditions well stated. Informative read.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By CoCo on November 23, 2004
Format: Paperback
The Cajun people have long been a subject of curiosity, and much has been written about their unique past. Since their existence, Cajuns have been studied by historians and romanticized by poets; however, there has been a dearth of serious historical work focusing on the recent transformation of their identity. Primarily a 20th century phenomenon for Cajuns, Americanization (the process by which a group or sub-culture becomes assimilated into the larger American identity) is the focal point of Bernard's The Cajuns.

Save for the introduction, which provides a quick historical overview of the Cajuns and perceptions of them through their existence, Bernard's tome consistently pairs each chapter to a corresponding decade, allowing the reader to follow the process of Cajun Americanization in a chronological fashion. Starting in the 1940s, chapter one discusses the effects of World War II on Cajuns in the military as well as those who remained back home. The decade of the 1950s, along with the cold war and global politics, and how these events affected Cajuns, makes up chapter two. In chapter three, the turbulent 1960s brings to light the changing mores and nationwide cultural shifts that Cajuns had to deal with, and how they were transformed by these changes. Chapter four reveals how Cajuns began to take back their identity in the 1970s through a number of initiatives. Finally, revitalization, expansion and exploitation of the culture and the resulting backlash in the 1980s and 1990s is explored in chapter five.

Bernard's examples of Americanization are numerous, stark and, in some cases, disturbing. Mostly isolated for around 200 years, the Cajuns enjoyed relative exclusion from the evolving American ethos.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca Lauren on June 24, 2006
Format: Paperback
In the 1940s, WASP schoolteachers across Louisiana were corporally punishing any students caught speaking Cajun French. Even though Cajun was the first language for most children, it was viewed as an impedement to progress that had to be weeded out of the state. By the 1990s, French natives recruited to teach in LA schools were told not to refer to Parisien French as "proper French," because this might imply that Cajun French was incorrect or wrong.

To explain the shift, Cajun author Shane K. Bernard leads his readers through decades of Cajun history, from WW2 to the present. At one end of his extensive book, LA's uniqueness is dissolving to homogenized America. Child actor Keith Thibedoux, who played Little Ricky on I Love Lucy, was so unaware of his heritage that he could only shrug when asked if he was Cajun. At the other end of the book, LA is in the midst of Francofete, a year-long, state-wide celebrationof French heritage, even as many LA residents were fast losing interest in preserving Cajun culture. "Where Did All the Cajuns Go?" one local newspaper asked.

Bernard examines how Louisiana Cajuns were impacted by national events by the Red Scare, local events like the completion of their state's stretch of Interstate 10, and the exploitation of their culture (Popeye's, for example, has done more to commercialize Cajun food than any other resteraunt). By the end of the book, Bernard's Louisiana readers must look in the mirror to find out where their state's Cajun, culture, and language are disappearing to.
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