The national media thinks we’re all Cajuns.
April 24, 2002
Warren Perrin ain’t happy – again. But this time he isn’t looking for an apology from the British Crown. He just wants ABC News Radio and Time magazine to think twice before using the word “Cajun,” particularly in the same breath with the not-so-popular Taliban regime.
On April 8, ABC Radio aired a segment about Yasser Esam Hamdi, a captured member of the Taliban born to Saudi Arabian parents in Baton Rouge. The broadcast described him as the “Cajun Taliban.” Then, in the April 15 issue of Time, there was an article about Hamdi titled Taliban from the Bayou. The caption to the photo read “RAGIN’ CAJUN? Hamdi, center, nabbed in Afghanistan, says Louisiana was home.”
CODOFIL President Perrin faxed a letter to Peter Salinger, ABC News Radio director, explaining that Cajuns are “a bona fide minority group protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” He then requested that Salinger refrain from using “this pejorative term” in the future. Perrin also contacted Time with the same concerns.
The Daily Advertiser ran a front page story on April 12 titled More than Cajuns say they’re Cajun. It pointed out that some of us not of Acadian descent, feel that we have assimilated well enough into the local culture to call ourselves Cajuns.
The same day, The New York Times ran the Associated Press story, ‘Cajun Taliban’ Name Has Cajuns Ragin’. The article quoted Shane Bernard, historian and archivist for the McIlhenney Company, and Barry Ancelet, head of University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s modern languages department. Ancelet said, “What people outside the state don’t know about us could fill a book.”
Perrin, Bernard and Ancelet want the word Cajun to be used in a proper context. The Daily Advertiser article indicates that there are some blurry notions about what constitutes a Cajun. What hasn’t been discussed, and what I find the most baffling, is what Ancelet hit upon – that two national news organizations assumed that everyone in Louisiana was Cajun, but what’s worse, that they did nothing to confirm or deny that assumption.
Apparently, those who live outside Louisiana think that the entire state is populated with Cajuns, and everyone who lives here knows better. Is it safe then to assume that everyone who lives in New York is Italian, possibly even a Mob member, or that everyone who lives in New Mexico is a Mexican?
I called Bill Saporito, the writer of the Time article. I wanted to know where he got the impression that everyone in Louisiana was Cajun. I also wanted to know if he – or any of the other four writers who contributed to his story – had looked into the matter.
Saporito was a personable guy, just too quick on the draw with his tongue. He was so willing to talk to me that he began answering my question before I even finished it. That’s how smart they are up there. They know what we’re going to say before we even say it.
“It wasn’t intended to be derogatory,” he said. “It was meant as a geographical reference. You can accuse me of being a stupid Northerner on that account, but I certainly wasn’t trying to be insensitive. Chalk it up as a learning experience on my part.”
He also mentioned that Perrin had already called him and given him “a history lesson.”
Great quotes, but it had nothing to do with what I wanted to know.
He sought to clarify his position again, before I could finish my question. He said, “Caption headers are tough. They’re tough to write and then you have two or three words to get the reader interested. The overarching point is that no offense was intended. We love Louisiana.”
The last remark turned me off, and I realized that my question didn’t matter to this guy. I was simply some yahoo at a weekly newspaper from somewhere down in Louisiana. I was wasting his time, and he was wasting mine. I thanked him for his time.
But let me rephrase his last sentiment: Americans have short attention spans. You don’t have a second chance to grab their attention. Accuracy isn’t as important as the hook.
What is important is remembering who we are – not as Cajuns or non-Cajuns – but as Louisiana citizens.
I was born in Bossier City and raised in Pineville. I don’t profess to be Cajun. I haven’t lived here my whole life, but I feel like it’s my home, even though it’s not. Just because I feel comfortable here doesn’t make me a Cajun, though. I’m from the piney hills of Central Louisiana, and I can spend my entire life proclaiming to be the king of France, but that doesn’t make it so.
The bottom line is if we don’t correct the rest of the nation about who we are, they’ll continue to believe that our primary mode of transportation is the pirogue and that everyone owns a pet alligator.