Cracker as a racial term
This term came up for me today in an online discussion. A lot of people didn’t understand why I was upset by it and that I see it as a derogatory term and rightly so. Apparently a lot of people seem to think it’s just a term black people use for white people to explain our blandness – like a saltine cracker.
The problem is – I live in the epicenter of Florida Cracker culture. So for me, a cracker isn’t just a racial term. It specifically refers to a farmer/settler of the area and their descendants who exploited and who still exploit slave labor for financial gain. It’s impossible to separate out Cracker culture from slavery and the forced removal of the Indian population from the area so that white folk could “settle” the area.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that as a white person living in this area, I benefit from the Cracker settlement of the area. I also have zero problems with black people using the term to negatively describe racist white folk who deserve to be labelled that way. After all crackers still exist. What I am trying to do with this essay is to help my white brethren understand that this isn’t simply a funny term to use to describe really white whites. Understanding WHY it’s an insult when a black person calls you a cracker will help you to understand WHY racial justice is still such an important issue. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a little less clueless about the struggles our black brothers and sisters face.
So – for a bit of history, well, white history anyway. Manatee County, where I live, was settled by folks known as Florida Crackers. http://www.crackercountry.org/index.php/history-education/florida-crackers
For a lot of white folk who are descendant from the original Florida Crackers – this term is not derogatory. They are proud to come from an original settler family. In fact, they have an annual ride where they get on horses and ride the Florida Cracker trail – see: http://www.crackertrail.org/
And again, I have no problem with this. I understand that this actually a genuine pioneer heritage. These settlers didn’t have it easy. It’s actually kind of amazing what they accomplished.
White Washing History – Literally
What I have a problem with is the white washing of that history. These settlers weren’t just rugged pioneers. They were slave owners! Actually, it’s more accurate to say – they were slave owners who had to give up their plantations post civil war and moved on to cattle farming which was less labor and therefore slave intensive. See: Manatee County History and Manatee County Phase 1 Historical Survey for some of the history of slavery in Manatee County FL.
Given that the original Florida Crackers owned slaves, it’s kind of amazing that this is how they white wash the history of slavery from a cracker perspective – http://www.crackercountry.org/index.php/history-education/african-american-influence Yes – you read that right – The article is called African American influence on Cracker Culture and the history of African Americans and their relationship to the Crackers starts AFTER the civil war.
What really happened:
I live in walking distance of the Gamble Sugar Planation where 150 slaves were brought to work. All the major settler families in the area (proudly known as Crackers) had slaves. Slaves made the plantation settlements in the area possible. The slaves were worth more than the land by the way. By a lot!
It isn’t ’t just the slaves that represent a problem for Cracker history. They also used the US Military to try and evict the local inhabitants (known as Indians) so that the land would be free to settle. Three Indian wars were fought in Florida as a result of this. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seminole_Wars) It should come as no surprise that the Florida Cracker History museum doesn’t even mention the Seminole Indian Wars even though those wars were caused by and defined by Cracker Settler demands.
It is impossible to separate out slavery and the war against the native inhabitants from Florida Cracker history. The three histories are linked. As much as the Florida Cracker is a symbol of the pioneering spirit that led to the “white” settlement of Florida. It is also a symbol of exploitation, abuse and death.
When you read the histories I linked to above that all mention of blacks in the area disappears after the civil war. As soon as blacks are freed, they are no longer mentioned in the census and they clearly weren’t important enough to make it into the history books as individuals with the exception of a few people who grew upin all black freedmen communities before moving north and becoming civil rights leaders (Zora Neale Hurston and A Philip Randolph come to mind).
The reality that we white folk need to reckon with is that slavery in the south and in Florida didn’t end with the official end of slavery. Sure, land holders transformed their slaves into sharecroppers. But often this was just another way to exploit them and their labor. We just didn’t call it slavery anymore. (See: Debt Slavery: sharecropping history at: http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/sharecropping.html#.VivLxNKrTGg)
Even when sharecropping finally disappeared, the practice of exploiting black labor on white farms didn’t. For instance, did you know that in my area of Florida blacks, all blacks, had to work in the celery fields when it was time to harvest? (see oral history: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006387/00001/2j) This story isn’t unique. It was the way things were. All black males over a certain age remember this happening to them. They would pull all the black boys out of school and all the black men out of their businesses and force them to work in the celery fields. That was just the way it was. And in case you need this clarified, forced labor – is slavery. It was the norm here well into the 1950s!
It was the norm because the entire agricultural system that was created and maintained by the Florida Crackers was built on slavery. Farming didn’t work economically any other way!
The Civil Rights Movement in Context of Cracker Culture
When we think of the civil rights movement, most of us white folk think about it terms of social exclusion. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at white counters or patron white businesses or live in certain neighborhoods. But what was happening was so much worse than that. It was an economic system of exploitation. Manatee County was not the only place where black men were being forced to work on white people’s farms during harvest season.
Demanding civil rights wasn’t just a plea for equality. It was also a demand that the violent exploitation of black labor stop.
The word Cracker, as a racial term, can mean many things. For a white cracker, it is a term of pride. It means that you are related to some of the original white “settlers” of Florida. You are a pioneer and aspire to live by that pioneering spirit.
The term means something completely different to people who were exploited by Florida Crackers. For them the term refers to a farmer who exploits black and now brown labor under threat of bodily harm or death. Reread the oral history from the University of Florida. They had to protect an 8th grader because the cracker forcing them to work wanted to kill the boy because he “sassed” the cracker. This event occurred in the late 1940s. Everyone expected the boy to be killed by this cracker at some point, but this boy lived and went on to found the local urban league. What is chilling is just how commonplace and routine the man giving the history viewed the event.
You cannot and should not separate out the civil rights movement from the continued economic exploitation of blacks, who were periodically force into slave labor, by the cracker farmers in the south. And you should not separate the term cracker from this history!
Modern Slavery: It’s still a problem
In case you think the problem of Florida Crackers using slave labor is a thing of the past – think again. Slavery is still a problem on Florida farms (see: http://www.ciw-online.org/slavery/) It may surprise you to know that the most recent prosecutions for slavery occurred in 2010. That’s only 5 years ago!
Using the term Cracker as a racial term
I am not offended by the use of the term cracker to describe racist white assholes. I think it’s an appropriate term to use given the history of the Florida Crackers and their exploitation of slave labor continuing into the present.
While I understand not all crackers today would condone such behavior, they did benefit from it. Heck, I benefit from it! I would not be living where I am had it not been for Florida Crackers their exploitation of slaves and the violent displacement of Indians from this land.
The reason I wrote this rather long post is because I think using the term cracker as a funny slightly racial way to describe white people, white washes actual Cracker history. Given that slavery by white farmers in Florida is still an ongoing problem, I don’t think we should redefine the term or whitewash it.
Cracker should not refer to anything less than an actual cracker or a person acting like a cracker. We should be acknowledging Cracker history – the good and the bad. All of it is important including the histories of the people who were harmed and exploited by Florida Crackers. I don’t see how we can eliminate the continued scourge of slavery in our midst if we don’t.