Magazine | August 19, 2013, Issue

Meet the Cracker

An old epithet gets a new life

As the Zimmerman case proved, a defining characteristic of the American mind is the care we take with our racial vocabularies to make sure they specify where we land in our national free fall known as “This is who I am.”

Earlier generations of blacks had no trouble finding interesting and clever ways to identify the Southern white racist. For instance, they called him a “peckerwood,” a deliberate inversion of a familiar word to describe the way he treated them: Like a woodpecker drilling into a tree, he was always at them, but switching the syllables gave them a protective cover in case he overheard their grumbling. Or he might be a “hoppergrass,” a dangerously changeable type whose next mood and next move were as unpredictable as a grasshopper flitting across a field.

Cool 21st-century blacks would naturally scorn the word-inversion code. It was retrogressive to the point of retreat, betrayed a fear of whites, required imagination, allowed for a comic touch, and made blacks sound illiterate. Most of all, it did not go far enough, so the cool generation devised a way to identify not only Southern white racists but Southern white racists of all races and regions. It was easy. Simply latch onto an unfamiliar obsolete word, personalize it to establish black ownership, and turn it into a fist bump. This is how George Zimmerman became a “Cracka.”

For the millions of Americans who are now wondering what a “Cracker” is, take heart: You do not have to parse Rachel Jeantel’s tortuous efforts to explain it. The answer has been right there in front of you all along, since 1936 in fact, because an important character in Gone with the Wind who was left out of the movie is a Cracker named Will Benteen.

He enters the story in Chapter 30, one of the retreating Confederate soldiers making their way home on foot after the surrender. As he passes through Tara he collapses with pneumonia and the O’Haras take him in and nurse him. We first meet him in the sickroom where he lies near death. “He was obviously a Cracker, just as the boy they had buried so short a while ago was obviously a planter’s son. Just how the girls knew this they could not say. Certainly Will was no dirtier, no more hairy, no more lice infested than many fine gentlemen. . . . Certainly the language he used in his delirium was no less grammatical than that of the Tarleton twins. But they knew instinctively, as they knew thoroughbred horses from scrubs, that he was not of their class.”

He pulls through, and to repay the O’Haras for saving his life he stays on and helps with the work. A small farmer before the war, he turns out to be a godsend, able to plow ruler-straight furrows, build fences, mend tools, and cure the horse of a fatal equine disease. He is the polar opposite of Ashley, the only other man on the place, who cannot split kindling without cutting himself. A mutual respect grows up between Scarlett and Will, who admire each other’s practicality and common sense. Knowing how much she needs his help to rebuild Tara, Scarlett looks for a way to keep him living there permanently instead of continuing on his way. When she learns that he bears an unrequited love for Carreen, her sweet-natured youngest sister, she quickly dispenses with class distinctions and urges Carreen to marry him. But Carreen has never gotten over Brent Tarleton, who was killed at Gettysburg, and has decided to become a nun. Meanwhile, Gerald O’Hara dies, Carreen goes off to the convent, and Melanie and Ashley move to Atlanta, where Scarlett herself now lives. That leaves Tara with just two residents, and so, to avoid scandal and preserve the proprieties, Will the Cracka marries Scarlett’s other sister, Suellen, who is a fist bump in her own right.

#page#In some ways Will Benteen could be called the “iconic Cracker,” to use the latest ubiquitous cliché. He certainly has the look: “a sallow malarial face, pinkish hair, washed-out blue eyes . . . lean and lanky, deceptively devoid of energy, eternally chewing on a straw.” Unlike poor white trash, who were seen as a leveling presence and a threat to the social order, Crackers were known for their simple dignity. To the County elite Will was “polite, respectful, mild, placid, patient as a draft animal,” worthy of that foremost Southern encomium, “poor but proud.” Some of the local gentry express resigned approval of him: “Oh, Crackers are good and solid and honest, but . . .” while others add the standard caveat: “He was honest, he was loyal, he was patient, and he was hardworking, but certainly he was not quality.”

This is Will but it is not iconic. For pure, unadulterated Crackers you must look to the family in The Yearling. What is different about Will is his consuming love for the land itself and for Tara in particular. As the impoverished planter families discern this, he goes from being the aristocrat’s favorite Cracker to the Cracker as aristocrat.

Predictably, Melanie starts his elevation when she proclaims him “a gentleman for his kind heart and thoughtfulness of others,” but official recognition comes from the holy terror of the County, Old Miss Fontaine, who unloads on Scarlett after Suellen’s engagement to Will is announced. She begins with the usual aristocratic prologue about unwise horse breeding, then abruptly switches sides.

“Do I approve of Crackers marrying into old families? Bah! Would I approve of breeding scrub stock to thoroughbreds? Well, don’t bother about what folks say. It’ll probably be a very successful marriage. Of course, Will’s always going to look like a Cracker, and marriage won’t improve his grammar any, and even if he makes a mint of money, he’ll never lend any shine and sparkle to Tara like your father did. Crackers are short on sparkle. But Will’s a gentleman at heart. He’s got the right instincts. . . . Yes, he will do well by Suellen and by Tara.”

In a novel whose theme is pure social Darwinism, the Cracker as aristocrat pales beside the aristocrat as Cracker. Such is Cathleen Calvert, the dashing blond belle “who, next to Scarlett, had more beaux than any girl in the County.” Scarlett has not seen her since before the war; when they meet again at Gerald O’Hara’s funeral Scarlett is horrified by what she sees. “Her faded sunbonnet [hid] her bowed face. . . . Her percale dress had grease spots on it and her hands were freckled and unclean. There were even black crescents under her fingernails. There was nothing of quality folks about Cathleen now. She looked Cracker, even worse. She looked poor white, shiftless, slovenly, trifling.” What Scarlett called gumption Darwin called the survival of the fittest. She and Will had survived but Cathleen had gone under.

In closing I offer some advice. If anybody calls you a “Cracka,” inform him that the word is not as cool as Rachel Jeantel thinks. It would be pronounced the same way by Scarlett O’Hara’s mother, whose coastal-Georgia accent is described as “liquid of vowels, kind to consonants.”

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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