I first heard the term a long time ago, and it went like this. There was a standard feature in Reader’s Digest titled Humor in Uniform. It was about funny happenings related to military life, which can be quite humorous.
Anyhow, there was this story about a cadet pilot at Graham Air Force Base, which was a training field in Florida. A big milestone in pilot training is the first solo flight, the first time the trainee goes up alone, without an instructor along. So this trainee was up on his first solo flight, and the exuberance was overwhelming, and he needed to share the joy. He got on the radio in flagrant violation of procedure and announced, “Graham Tower, this is Graham Cracker. Eat me!” The tower came back with the bad news, “Consider yourself eaten. You’re the only one in the air.” That was the end of Graham Cracker’s flight training.
At the time I was not familiar with “cracker” in this context, but I later became acquainted with the term “Georgia Cracker,” and I began to get the idea. A cracker was some kind of southern country hick. OK, I can comprehend that.
The term has come up again recently. In February last year an unarmed teenager was shot to death in a scuffle with a resident of a housing community in Sanford, Florida. The dead person’s name was Trayvon Martin, and just before the altercation he was on his phone talking to his girlfriend and complaining about being stalked by a “creepy ass cracker.” The teenager was black, and the man with the gun, one George Zimmerman, was white. So, you get the idea. To this particular victim the idea of a creepy white man is a cracker.
George Zimmerman mug shot
The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white man followed by no subsequent prosecution enraged Martin’s family, and many others. There was the consideration that racial profiling was involved in Zimmerman’s stalking Martin. Previous to the shooting Zimmerman had been on the phone to police saying he was following a black man, Martin, who had come into the neighborhood and was acting suspiciously. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had a history of calling police about suspicious black characters. Anyhow, Zimmerman was subsequently prosecuted for the shooting and was acquitted. Zimmerman claimed Martin initiated the fight, and that was enough for a finding of self defense. The racial implications of the case linger, and there is a curious sidebar. A number of people have taken sides over who was at fault for the shooting, and Martin’s reference to Zimmerman is being tagged as racial by his detractors.
Rachel Jeantel, the troubled young woman who was speaking on the phone to Trayvon Martin just before he was killed, testified in George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial that Martin called Zimmerman a “creepy [ass] cracka” before their violent confrontation.
The quote is not from one of Martin’s detractors but from the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, who says additionally:
I’ve been warning for the past 23 years that black racism is out-of-control – it appears black racism killed Trayvon Martin, and Paula Deen’s career!
Paula Deen, of course, is the TV chef who has been dumped by sponsors for perceived racial prejudice. Which gets us back to the word “cracker.” Americans, and I am sure others do, have a name for just about every type of person. We have Yankee, gringo, honky, cracker, Cajun, coon ass, injun, Canuk, mick, wop, dago, kike, spic, Hun, jerry, kraut, Jap, gook, chink, and nigger. Most of these terms are derogatory and considered to be racial slurs. Some not so much so. Cajuns universally wear the appellation “coon ass” with pride.
I was explaining all these names to some French friends a few years ago, and one asked if we had a name for the French. Of course we do have a derisive name for the French (frog), but I told my friends I did not know of any such and we just called them French.
The origins of these names go way back, some starting out as pejorative but later rehabilitated. Others have innocent beginnings but ultimately became slurs. Yankee is from the Dutch term for “John Cheese,” a really stupid person. That’s what the Dutch colonists in what is now New York called the English who came in to take over. When American troops invaded Mexico about 1846 the Irish troops sang Green Grow the Violets, and the Mexicans translated this into gringo. When Italian immigrants showed up at Ellis Island without papers their forms were stamped WOP. Jewish immigrants got a circle (kikel) placed on their forms. Irish immigrants were called mick for Michael. Arcadian settlers in Louisiana were soon called Cajuns. Negro is the Spanish word for black, and black Africans were called Negroes. Slave owners needed to dehumanize them to feel comfortable with the crime they were committing, and they called the slaves niggers. The term has never had a good meaning, and these days it is never pronounced in a polite context on television. News anchors have to use the term “N word” or lose their jobs.
It’s possible the issue of racially sensitive language has slipped downhill in the past 30 years. I keep getting back to this SNL clip featuring comedians Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor. It may be we can’t do this anymore.
Interviewer: Alright, Mr. Wilson, you’ve done just fine on the Rorshact.. your papers are in good order.. your file’s fine.. no difficulties with your motor skills.. And I think you’re probably ready for this job. We’ve got one more psychological test we always do here. It’s just a Word Association. I’ll throw you out a few words – anything that comes to your mind, just throw back at me, okay? It’s kind of an arbitrary thing. Like, if I say “dog”, you’d say..?
Mr. Wilson: “Tree”.
And then later:
Mr. Wilson: [ defensive ] “Cracker!”
Interviewer: [ aggressive ] “Spearchucker.”
Mr. Wilson: “White trash!”
Interviewer: “Jungle Bunny!”
Mr. Wilson: [ upset ] “Honky!”
Mr. Wilson: [ really upset ] “Honky Honky!”
Interviewer: [ relentless ] “Nigger!”
Mr. Wilson: [ immediate ] “Dead honky!” [ face starts to flinch ]
It’s funny, of course, and you can watch a video on YouTube.
Americans have conjured up derisive terms for the enemy in various wars, because it makes it easier to kill somebody if you can first demote them in the chain of humanity. But nobody that night in February 2012 was calling anybody a nigger. Somebody called another person a cracker.
Cracker, sometimes white cracker or cracka, is a derogatory term for white people, especially poor rural whites in the Southern United States. In reference to a native of Florida or Georgia, however, it is sometimes used in a neutral or positive context and is sometimes used self-descriptively with pride.
The origins go way back:
The term “cracker” was in use during Elizabethan times to describe braggarts. The original root of this is the Middle English word crack meaning “entertaining conversation” (One may be said to “crack” a joke; a witty remark is a “wisecrack”). This term and the Gaelic spelling “craic” are still in use in Ireland and Scotland. It is documented in Shakespeare’s King John (1595): “What cracker is this… that deafes our eares / With this abundance of superfluous breath?”
One fault line in the Zimmerman case was along the issue of gun rights. Some on Zimmerman’s side saw this as a gun rights issue. What’s the use of have a right to carry a gun if you are going to be prosecuted the first time you kill somebody? Lacking any knowledge about motivation, I will cite a couple of remarks from Facebook postings. These apparently are in response to the Reverend Peterson’s post:
Shelly Phillips Biggs[:] Good article. I’m so sick of everyone (media, law enforcement, courts, etc) assuming when someone is referred to as a racist, they can hardly believe it may be someone other that whites! Liked this section: Whites have to overcome the fear of being called “racist.”
Chuck Tilbury[:] I used to flinch if someone called me a racist or a bigot. Not any more. I know who I am. (not a bigot) And, I know a liar when I see one. And if someone goes around telling lies about me, should I get all angry and try to get revenge? Nope. It only pl…See More
It would seem that learning Martin had called Zimmerman a cracker let’s some people salve their consciences. When I first read this on Facebook I wondered what these people had done to be called racist, but I never followed up on it. It would appear that some have recently become racially sensitive if they were not already. Here’s another item. Jason Easley posted an inflammatory comment about Texas governor Perry, and somebody on Facebook considered this pertinent to the discussion:
Rick ‘Niggerhead’ Perry Tells African Americans There’s No Racism In the Justice System On CNN today, Gov. Rick Perry took a break from stealing the rights of women to let African Americans know that there is no racism in the justice system. CROWLEY: Watching the action across the nation to the not guilty verdict in George Zimmerman’s murder trial people have gathered in the streets of downtown Chicago. Federal and state officials are keeping a close eye but mostly things have been pretty calm. In just a moment I will talk to the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn. I want to go first to Texas and Republican governor Rick Perry made a lot of news this weekend. Also a lot of news being made in Florida, governor. So let’s start there. What do you make of the Zimmerman verdict and the reaction to it? PERRY: Candy, without a doubt, a tragic event and as your experts you had on the previous segment they did a very good job of laying out the details of the case. And the issue boils down to you had two very, very capable teams, prosecutors and the defense teams laying out the evidence and the jury made the decision. And although, you know, there maybe people on either side of this that don’t agree with how it came out, the fact is that we have the best judicial system in the world and we respect it. And you know, that’s my position is that a very thoughtful case was made by each side, the jurors made the decision, and we will live with that.
I cannot find from the darkest reaches of my soul find any excuse for calling Perry “Niggerhead,” and the extreme racial slant of the post is completely uncalled for. However, my perception is that this link was posted on Facebook as a way of diluting the significance of an apparent racial bias in the Zimmerman case.
One thing that keeps being emphasized in the discussion is that Zimmerman is also a racial minority. Despite having a German surname he bills himself as Hispanic. So, where’s the white on black racism if Zimmerman is not white? Doesn’t that kind of diffuse the racist slant of this episode? I am guessing it does, else why would defenders of Zimmerman ever bring it up? Further, if Zimmerman is not, in fact, “white,” then where is the black on white racism?
Taking a closer look, Zimmerman’s father is of German ancestry (“white”), and his mother is from Peru, of part black African and part Spanish (white) ancestry. Call me color blind if you want, but from all appearances Zimmerman is white. I have seen snowflakes darker than Zimmerman. Anyhow, there was enough similarity to fool Martin, who told his girlfriend on the phone he was being stalked by a creepy ass Cracker, the source of claims for black on white racism.
From the words that have been flying back and forth on the issue it would appear there is a passel of white folks who identify with the term cracker and are lightly insulted and freshly self-righteous.
Which brings me around to the title of this post. I never did get to see the film when it first came out in 1963, and I have not been able to catch it since on Turner Classic Movies. It stars Bob Hope and its title is Call Me Bwana. I will do a review the next time I get a chance (need to watch it first), but I have always considered I had the title figured out.
As a youngster I saw many B movies at the local theater in my home town, and I could count on more than one a year being set in Africa with European hunters or such with a hired gang of local black Africans. In these movies the hired hands seemed to call all white people “Bwana.”
from Swahili, meaning an important person or safari leader
To me it always seemed that being called cracker was not all that far from being called Bwana. All you crackers out there can write in and let me know your preference.