I’m away from my San Diego home, visiting Louisiana right now, crashing in a friend’s New Orleans guest house. It’s the tail end of my latest academic research trip. A wall-mounted AC unit is blasting out unusually chilled air.
My project is a history of French-language radio in southern Louisiana. Much of whatever I end up writing will include a good bit of history, though there are a few diehard advocates of Louisiana French who still use the airwaves to promote this language. As a professor of media studies at San Diego State University, this whole topic aligns perfectly with my area of research and the topics of my classes.
This current trip forced me to think about my graduate school classes, some twenty years ago. As part of the mandatory classes to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, we learned about different ways to conduct academic research, including field work with human subjects and the importance of ethics, honesty, and respect. Dealing with living people is admittedly a bit unusual for me as a historian; much of my previous research has been on topics so old that no one could possibly have firsthand accounts, (such as pre-World War One wireless telegraphy). Now, I’m not poring over brittle, faded documents in an archive, but am rather face to face with someone who lived through the events that I’m trying to reconstruct. Memories often fade or change – a natural process – and I continually remind myself that I am dealing with humans and all their accompanying foibles.
Before I left San Diego, I realized that I embody the classic “insider/outsider” position with this project. My ethnic background is Cajun; on both sides, the lineage goes back to Acadian French, who were dispelled from Canada in the late 1700s. I’m an Air Force brat, however, always stationed elsewhere, returning only for holidays and summers. Such visits became less frequent as everyone got older or passed. No one in my immediate family even spoke French (that stopped with my grandparents). The intricate details of local geography are lost on me. For example, a few days ago someone in Scott, Louisiana told me to go to “the old Walmart” in Breaux Bridge. I did not find these directions helpful. For these reasons, I came to Louisiana favoring the latter half of my “insider/outsider” situation.
But being in Louisiana, with the buzzing insects, the slam of the screen door and the familiar smells wafting from the kitchen, I’m surprised at how comfortable this all feels. I slipped back into old behaviors like second nature, such as frequent use of “yes, ma’am”, “thank you much,” and other exceedingly polite phrases. I went to a cousin’s house one of my first days back in Louisiana and, in full honesty, the bottle of Tabasco and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning on the kitchen table made me relax. In the 1970s, when I was quite young, the presence of these items at someone’s house made me think that they must be relatives (and I was generally correct).
This wave of childhood memories has altered my perspective on my own research. Perhaps inevitably, I find myself shifting my focus to the first part of the “insider/identity” situation. Even if I grew up across the United States, far from Lafayette, these are my people. I am not the proverbial academic outsider, dropping into some exotic land to study the curious folkways of the locals, but rather someone proud and aware of the long history of Cajun culture.
As one sign of change, I found myself more careful about taking pictures when I was off the main roads. Many Cajuns are poor, and many structures in rural Louisiana are famously dilapidated. I’m wary of photographing some extreme images, and I’ve seen quite a few, lest I accidentally engage in “hicksploitation” of my people. Cajuns have been notoriously ridiculed in popular culture; swamp-dwelling buffoons with a beer in one hand a fishing rod in the other. I used to laugh off such imagery, but now that I’ve learned about the struggles the Cajuns endured to preserve their culture, I find this attempt at humor genuinely offensive.
With this change of perspective, now favoring the first part of the “insider/outsider” identity, my Cajun radio project has changed a bit. This project is now about more than simply documenting a fading practice, the use of French on the radio in Louisiana, but about celebrating and championing it. Does this kind of overt subjectivity weaken my academic research? I honestly don’t think it does… but even if it did, I’m proud to be Cajun and I’m not going to whitewash my roots.