Sunday, August 23, 2009

What is a Cracker?

I have spent the greatest part of my life in the part of the Unites States that are considered "The South." During that time I have heard many different titles bestowed on individuals from any number of classes, ethnic groups, or religious affiliations. Some, as we all know, are none too kind and have deep roots in history and racism. Probably what is the most common term used to describe white Southerners is "redneck." But there are also "peckerwoods," "good old boys," "honky"-thus "honky-tonk," "hillbilly,"and of course, those that are economically disadvantaged and of bad character; the "poor white trash." I suppose those names could be applied to anyone in any geographic location of the United States, but in my mind they are used most often in some association with white Southerners.

One term that I have always found unusual is "cracker." I have always assumed that since most crackers (the saltine variety) are white, then that is the reason the term was used to describe white people in the South; this is not necessarily so though. Another explanation I have heard for the term is that mean whites, usually overseers, cracked the whip while motivating enslaved laborers to work harder. Yet another is that poor whites scavenged about in colonial and antebellum times often living on pecans and other nuts and to get the nuts they of course had to "crack" them. Along the same lines is the thought that poor white Southerners lived on cracked corn so much that they thus derived the term. Webster's 10th Edition Collegiate Dictionary has a number of definitions for the word cracker. One of these is: "a poor Southern white, usually used disparagingly." Good enough, but a little research finds that the term goes way back, although not necessarily in many of the ways we think of it today.

In Elizabethan England a "cracker" was someone who was boastful or a joker, thus the phrase, "cracking a joke;" often a theater performer. In 1766, in an official correspondence, a colonist wrote to the earl of Dartmouth, "I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their place of abode." Thus, the term cracker came to represent, in that time, usually a Southern Scots-Irish herder. Herding is how many immigrants who were too poor to purchase land made a living. The free ranging of hogs and cattle, and then herding them miles and miles to markets while squatting on another man's land was not so uncommon of a life in the early American South, especially in the frontier borderlands.

The king of cracker scholarship was Dr. Grady McWhiney, who passed away in 2006. His book, Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988) is a great read, and I highly recommend it. His thesis in this study is that the South's distinctiveness derives mainly from the early settlement of the region by people of Celtic origins and ancestry; mainly the Scots-Irish, but also the Welsh. In the book he explains that,
"Cracker soon became part of the American vocabulary, but it has almost always been used disparagingly to describe the mudsills of the South. Contemporaries and scholars alike usually equated Crackers to poor whites. Few writers chose, as did the historian Lewis C. Gray, to distinguish between the two: 'The distinctive characteristics of the poor white were recognized in the various special appellations by which they were contemptuously known in different parts of the South, such as 'piney-woods people,' 'dirt-eaters,' 'clay-eaters,' tallow-faced gentry,' 'sand-hillers,' and 'crackers.' The term crackers, however, was sometimes applied also to mountaineers and other small farmers.' Gray also acknowledged that many of the Old South's herdsmen were called Crackers. To most travelers in the antebellum South, especially those from England and the North, a Cracker was any Southerner whose ways differed significantly from their own, and many accounts of trips though the Old South devoted space to laughing and sneering at the rustic and lazy habits of the Crackers."

So, there is one interpretation of the origins of the term cracker, and it seems to make more sense than the ones I had previously always assumed or associated with the term. Once again the point is proven that my mother always used to say, "if you don't know something that you want to know...look it up!"

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