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The Secret History Of The Word 'Cracker'

Fun with homonyms!
Fun with homonyms!

As you might have gathered from our blog's title, the Code Switch team is kind of obsessed with the ways we speak to each other. Every Monday in "Word Watch," we'll dig into language that tells us something about the way race is lived in America today. (Interested in contributing? Holler at this form.)

Last week, Rachel Jeantel took the stand in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin after an altercation. Jeantel was on the phone with Martin moments before the fateful encounter.

Jeantel said that Martin told her that a "creepy-ass cracker" was following him. She told Don West, George Zimmerman's attorney, that she didn't think the phrase was racist; West argued that it was.

Hold up a second. Cracker? In 2013? It struck my ears as dated, like ofay or honky, the kind of slur an old head like Richard Pryor might have uttered. Jeantel and Martin, of course, were millennials. Could cracker be a regional thing?

I asked Jelani Cobb, a historian at the University of Connecticut and a contributor to The New Yorker, if he might know. (Full disclosure: Cobb is a friend.) He'd written about the etymology of some anti-white slurs: peckerwood, Miss Anne and Mister Charlie, and buckra, a term that was once widely used throughout the black diaspora, in the Americas, the Caribbean and in West Africa.

"Cracker," the old standby of Anglo insults was first noted in the mid 18th century, making it older than the United States itself. It was used to refer to poor whites, particularly those inhabiting the frontier regions of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. It is suspected that it was a shortened version of "whip-cracker," since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip (not to mention the other brutal arenas where those skills were employed.) Over the course of time it came to represent a person of lower caste or criminal disposition, (in some instances, was used in reference to bandits and other lawless folk.)

But it turns out cracker's roots go back even further than the 17th century. All the way back to the age of Shakespeare, at least.

"The meaning of the word has changed a lot over the last four centuries," said Dana Ste. Claire, a Florida historian and anthropologist who studies, er, crackers. (He literally wrote the book on them.)

Ste. Claire pointed me to King John, published sometime in the 1590s. One character refers to another as a craker — a common insult for an obnoxious bloviator.

What craker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?

"It's a beautiful quote, but it was a character trait that was used to describe a group of Celtic immigrants — Scots-Irish people who came to the Americas who were running from political circumstances in the old world," Ste. Claire said. Those Scots-Irish folks started settling the Carolinas, and later moved deeper South and into Florida and Georgia.

But the disparaging term followed these immigrants, who were thought by local officials to be unruly and ill-mannered.

"In official documents, the governor of Florida said, 'We don't know what to do with these crackers — we tell them to settle this area and they don't; we tell them not to settle this area and they do," Ste. Claire said. "They lived off the land. They were rogues."

By the early 1800s, those immigrants to the South started to refer to themselves that way as a badge of honor and a term of endearment. (I'm pretty sure this process of reappropriating a disparaging term sounds familiar to a lot of y'all.)

The crackers had their distinctive time-intensive cuisine — swamp cabbage, hoppin' john, corn pone — and favored architectural styles meant to make cooking in the brutal Southern summers more bearable. There were baseball teams called the Crackers. According to Ste. Claire, we've even had a cracker president.

"Jimmy Carter is a cracker," Ste. Claire said. "He's an Oglethorpe, from Celtic-English cracker stock. I don't know if he knows, but I think Jimmy Carter would proudly call himself one. "

It was in the late 1800s when writers from the North started referring to the hayseed faction of Southern homesteaders as crackers. "[Those writers] decided that they were called that because of the cracking of the whip when they drove slaves," Ste. Claire said. But he said that few crackers would have owned slaves; they were generally too poor. (That of course, doesn't mean they weren't participants in the South's slave economy in other ways.)

Ste. Claire said that by the 1940s, the term began to take on yet another meaning in American inner cities in particular: as an epithet for bigoted white folks. But he wasn't sure how it happened. (I'm hazarding a guess here, but this would have been during the height of the Great Migration, as millions of black people from the South were moving to the North and West and fleeing Southern racism. They might have carried cracker with them as a shorthand for whites back in the Jim Crow South.)

In the 1990s, some officials in Highlands County, Fla., decided to name a new school the Cracker Trail Elementary school. Their hope was to honor the area's history; the school sat near the Florida Cracker Trail. But many in the county weren't having it.

"African-Americans protested because they thought it was racist and whites protested because they thought it was racist," Ste. Claire said. (The school kept the name.)

For many Southern whites, though, cracker has remained uncomplicated, a source of cultural pride. "There are people who will claim that there's a diff between Georgia cracker and a Florida cracker, but that's really just a difference of football teams," Ste. Claire said.

But Ste. Claire said that cracker is a way of life.

And as much as Ste. Claire studies and celebrates cracker culture — he and several friends run a traveling event called The Great Southern Cracker Roadshow — he technically doesn't count as one.

"Just because you lived in the South doesn't mean you're a cracker," Ste. Claire said. "To really call yourself a cracker you have to live the cracker way — you have to start your kitchen at 4 in the morning," he said.

Just like all those touristy, overpriced soul food joints, Ste. Claire said that you can find fancified cracker cuisine for sale at restaurants all over the South. "You can spend $40 on cracker food," he said. "I call that the revenge of the crackers. I'm sure a lot of crackers are rolling over in their graves at that."

UPDATE: Alright, y'all. All this moderating is exhausting, so we're shutting the comments down. Thanks for chiming in on this post.

Want to help us answer a question about the how race and language intersect? We're looking for contributors. You can throw your hat in the ring here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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