is a New Orleans-born poet, playwright, musician, educator, and scholar who has dedicated her life’s work to preserving the Louisiana Creole language and culture.
Sybil Kein was born Consuela Marie Moore on September 29, 1939, in New Orleans. Her father was Frank P. Moore, a bricklayer, and her mother was Augustine Boudreaux, a homemaker and musician. She comes from a family of Louisiana Creole and Cajun descent, with a musical inclination that stretched back generations. Her mother’s family, the Boudreauxs, came from Pointe Coupee Parish; her maternal grandfather, John Boudreaux played banjo with the New Orleans “Creole Serenaders Jazz Band.” Both her mother, Augustine Boudreaux, and her grandmother, Viola Borsky Boudreaux, were accomplished pianists and singers. Her brother, Deacon John, is a well-known New Orleans jazz, blues, and rock musician. Her mother’s family is also related to the descendents of voodoo priestess Marie Laveaux.
Sybil Kein grew up speaking Creole French in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood long known as a center for Creole culture. She began studying music at Corpus Christi Elementary and Xavier Preperatory School, both schools that were historically associated with New Orleans Creoles of color. She received a bachelor’s degree in viola and violin performance from Xavier University in 1964.
She auditioned for a position in the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, but was turned down because in the pre-Civil Rights era, the orchestra was still open to whites only. Shocked by this reaction, Kein experimented with dance, painting, and sculpture before choosing a career as a writer, beginning with poetry and plays as her artistic media of choice.
Around this time she chose the pen name Sybil Kein, which means “prophetess, I am not.” After playing folk music for public school students and raising three children through the 1960s, Kein went to Louisiana State University at New Orleans (now UNO), receiving a masters degree in theater arts and communications in 1972. From there, she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to study under renowned African-American poet Robert Hayden, receiving a Ph.D in American ethnic literature from the University of Michigan in 1975.
Already an instructor at the University of Michigan since 1972, her connection with the university led to a position as professor of English and theatre at UM’s Flint campus in 1975. She remained in Flint for over twenty-five years, retiring from her faculty position in 2000. Despite remaining in Flint for much of her life, Kein’s writing has always concerned New Orleans and Louisiana as her main subject matter. In particular, her work has been instrumental in bringing the cultural contributions of Louisiana Creoles to a broader audience. Her poetry and plays deal with themes of slavery, miscegenation, the color line, the dilemmas of mixed-race Creoles, and breaking down stereotypes between blacks and whites.
Her written works include over 1000 poems and 28 plays. Her first volume of published poetry, Gombo People (1981), was the first book ever written in the Louisiana Creole language. An expanded version of Gombo People was reprinted in 1998. Other volumes of her poetry include Delta Dancer (1984), and An American South (1996).
Sybil Kein has also made important contributions to Creole culture as a musician. She has recorded several albums of original songs, and has also recovered and recorder little-known traditional Creole songs. Her recordings include Serenade Creole (1987), Creole Ballads and Zydeco (1996), Maw-Maw’s Creole Lullaby and Other Songs for Children (1997), and Creole Classique (2000), which preserves the work of nineteenth century Creole composers. She often performs with her brother, guitarist Charles Moore.
In addition to her artistic and literary contributions, Kein has been a major originator of the newly-resurgent interest in scholarship on Creole history and culture. She edited Creole: The History and Legacy of Lousiana’s Free People of Color, a major book of essays on Louisiana Creoles published in 2000. She has also written scholarly articles and given presentations on a number of topics, including New Orleans jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, Creole music and food culture, the use of Creole language, and African and Afro-Caribbean religions.
After retiring from her faculty position at the University of Michigan, Sybil Kein returned to live in New Orleans in January 2000. Kein’s New Orleans home was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. As of late 2006, she now lives in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Artist profile in Artist Grant Exhibition Recipients booklet, Pontiac Art Center, 1982.
“Biography and Achievements” section for Sybil Kein, Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African-American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. (New York: Praeger, 1990) (Folder 190)
Biographical profile in Contemporary Authors, Volume 163, 1998. (Folder 245)
Lane, Cassandra “Sybil Kein: Writing the Creole Renaissance” New Orleans Tribune, February/March 2001. (Folder 190)
Diettinger, Cristina. “In Search of Creole” Lousiana Life Spring 2002 (Folder 190)
More biographical information on Sybil Kein can be found in folders 244 through 249.