Our crackers are another story.
This is the third and final in a series on Appalachian epithets. Up until now we have dealt with labels that most true Appalachians would accept or at least recognize as fitting at least some of the hillbilly population. We include cracker because of its historic connection to Appalachians and to put a finer point on the differences.
I reckon that most everyone has heard the term cracker used in a derogatory way towards European Americans mostly in the south. Most anyone with an Internet connection probably knows something about the term originally meaning a loud braggart. My educated guess is that braggart could probably be more accurately replaced by raconteur given the context of the root word crack. In the Anglo-Saxon languages of northern Britain, crack means fun usually in relation to a pub with music and drink. I would assume that the German word gemutlikeit is similar in meaning. We have the word in American English today in the from of a wisecrack or crack a joke.
A few years ago while in Dublin I noticed provocative signs in the windows of the local pubs proclaiming, “Our Crack won't kill you.” It would seem that southern Ireland had also absorbed the Scots-Irish word so totally that it had even been adopted into Irish Gaelic as “craic”. Indeed some young Irish are unaware that the word is foreign.
In colonial American I could certainly see the other colonists turning the northern Brit's own word on them in a derogatory fashion. These folks had to have gotten on their neighbors' nerves. They were obnoxious and dour Covenanters on one hand and loud, whiskey swilling drunkards on the other. A bunch of damn “crackers” I would think. It isn't a good time until some Ulsterman breaks some crockery.
In a way the term cracker is more fitting of Appalachians today than redneck. Redneck with its origins in the Presbyterianism is more limiting than cracker. I really have no problem being called a loud, joyful drunkard even if I haven't had a drink in 10 years.
But the truth is that cracker today has a much different meaning and I agree with some of our readers that I would be uncomfortable accepting the label with its current connotation. For all of the negatives linked to the other Appalachian epithets, there is something more sinister about cracker. There are a number of social clues that leads one to understand that there is just “something” about the term that unsettles folks. Anyone who knows David Lowery's sensibilities would certainly deduce that there is something dark and ironic in the term for him to select it as the name of his post Camper van Beethoven band. The fact that a number of Georgians and Floridians proudly call themselves crackers should not lead one to believe that they do so without owning its darker connotations. There are many American sub-cultures who enjoy being seen as slightly dangerous and I tend to see cracker in this category.
I recall an encounter almost 25 years ago that defined the term for me and opened my eyes to a darker side of America.
My junior year as an undergraduate at Ohio State I shared a three story townhouse with three other young men. I have described Mike in other articles as the life of the party and the leader of our gang. Mike like me was from Scioto County, Ohio but unlike me Mike had been raised Catholic and was not what I would call 100% hillbilly. I seem to remember that Mike's maternal family may have been from Pittsburgh. Alex was, I believe a second generation Russian Jew from around the Dayton area and Chuck was a black guy from Reynoldsburg a mostly white suburb just outside of Columbus. I was a recent convert to Catholicism but had been raised nominally Methodist. Truth is I mostly went to nondenominational churches with my aunt Rosemary whenever I spent the night with my cousin Mark which seems like every weekend of my childhood.
Two Catholics, a Jew and a black guy. We were just a K.K.K weenie roast waiting to happen. We made great fun of the fact that we were a cliché every time we walked into a bar together.
To make some extra money we would sometimes deliver cars for Mike's dad who ran a leasing agency. The most regular gig was to drive a brand new Chevy Chevette to rural post offices in the deep south and Mike would drive us all back in a family truckster of a station wagon. We seldom came home with much extra money as we often stopped in Myrtle Beach or Gatlinburg. It was great fun and exactly the type of thing that young guys are supposed to do so that they may develop a keen understanding of just what it means to be free. Sometimes we would bring our former roommate Greg along. Greg was from central Florida so having a native along was good for translating. Greg was also one thing that none of the rest of us were. He was a Protestant I think but so was Chuck. No, Greg was relatively rich compared to the rest of us. So we had that class thing covered too.
Having all of your bases covered north of the Mason-Dixon line is something totally different and the Charlie Daniels-esque reality check that we were about to receive clued us in pretty damn fast.
I won't mention the name of the deep southern town nor even the state. And don't think for a second that I would paint all folks with the same broad strokes. I hold no one in higher regard than I do President Carter and he is as southern as they come. But this is about a different type of southerner.
As was our habit we usually pilled out of the station wagon and into the air conditioned post office while Mike went over the paperwork with the local postmaster. That navy blue wagon could get mighty hot might fast and besides I think Mike liked to show off his crew of “professional drivers.” Most times the postal workers were warm and friendly but sometimes there was that creepy vibe. It was hard to figure out where it was coming from. You could never be sure if it was a class thing or a north-south thing. My paternal grandpa was a local postmaster so I have nothing but respect for the position. Heck I obviously had enough respect for government work to have done nothing but all my adult life. But there were times when the folks at these facilities were subtly hostile for no apparent reason. I recall that one of the boys hopped off the dock instead of taking the stairs as a 21 year old guy in a hurry will do. This drew a “boy you would never work here a-jumpin' off like that.” We of course demurred and apologized for the reckless behavior when in our mind we were thinking, “piss off Cletus, I don't think a guy with a mechanical engineering degree from Ohio State is in any danger of ending up needing a job on your dock.” But we only thought it and as respectful as these boys were and given that there was little likelihood that we would ever be that way again, there was really no reason to bitch at the boy.
But that was mild.
Alex, Greg and I were standing in the office of one of these postmasters while Mike conducted his business with the man in charge. Chuck had a real job and didn't make these trips often. Thank the Lord. Mike had just finished up and was gathering his folder when the postmaster took note of Greg's Ohio State t-shirt. It really would be impossible to parody this guy. He was straight from central casting. His scalp shown through his crew cut exposing a slightly moist plate that he mopped periodically with a gray handkerchief. The air conditioning was working fine but the 60 extra pounds of recycled bacon fat he was barely hiding beneath that khaki cloth and overworked buttons had to be given his capillaries a hard time. The man was a heart attack on a stick.
“So you boys are all from up there at Ohio State?” “Yes sir, go Bucks!” “I understand you all have a problem up there with integration?” “Not that we know of. Folks are pretty much free to go where they please, and if anyone is kept out of a business or such the authorities take care of it and newspapers jump on them with both feet.”
“Yeah, that's what I meant.”
My blood ran cold and I felt helpless in a way I have only experience a few times since. Like when my daughter was born by C-section. I had no control over the situation and I didn't know quite what to expect. I saw out of the corner of my eye, Greg's hand come up on Alex's shoulder in a motion meant to herd him to the door. Not only did Alex bare a slight resemblance to Garry Shandling he sounds like the comedian and shares his off beat wit. You also never knew when Alex's righteous indignation would show up and this wasn't a High Street bar after an Ohio State game. Wise-crack or tirade either of the two most likely replies from Alex would not have been good for our health and Greg knew it. I could see in Greg's eyes that he was spooked.
At that time while looking at my feet I noticed my St. Christopher's medal dangling there from around my neck like a big “shoot me I'm a Papist” sign. I honestly think it was Mike who glided us out of there with his business chatter. All I remember is that somehow we got back in the car and pulled away. Greg let out his nervous fake laugh. He knew these folks and he knew we were probably never in any real danger but you couldn't be sure and that is the way THEY wanted us to feel. As we were headed out of the little town the blood came back to our heads and we started to gain our bravado and humor. He laughed with the typical, “yikes, what a piece of work that cracker was.” But we didn't really start to breathe easy until we crossed the state line later that night and we drove straight through back to Columbus, only stopping for gas.
I know it doesn't sound that bad but you had to be there to feel the malice come off this man. He wanted us to know how he felt about us and our ideas and he knew that we knew that there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it because we were in his world. Only later did my more adult empathy cause me to imagine what my life might be like if I had been born black and poor in that man's world. I had $20 in my pocket, no family in that God forsaken little village and a big ass Chevy to get me the hell out of there. I was free.
So when I hear the word “cracker” I have a reference point.