Confessions of a cracker

MY GRANDPARENTS were born in the 1890s and late 1880s, about 25 short years after the Civil War ended, and they were Southern to the bone.

They were, as am I, Georgia Crackers, but that’s not as simple a thing as you might think.

It’s popular these days to remove statues of Civil War participants, done with the silly notion they were all evil people, but they were not. Gen. Lee, for instance, opposed slavery, but he joined Confederate forces because he wouldn’t fight his native Virginia.

His dilemma was a 19th Century version of “it’s complicated.”

As a youngster I spent far more time with my maternal grandparents than with my father’s folks due to physical proximity, my mother being an only child, and my father not being overly fond of his own father, a Baptist deacon.

As a result I know nothing about my paternal grandparents’ racial attitudes, though I suspect they were extremely liberal, even from a modern perspective. They took Christian values very much to heart. There was nothing hypocritical about them.

My mother’s parents were another matter. My maternal grandfather died when I was 12, so I had little first-hand experience with him, which I did have, quite a lot, with my maternal grandmother who didn’t die till I was 22.

Of my four grandparents, my favorite by far was my maternal grandmother whose name was Osie Moree Powell. I spent weeks, sometimes months, alone with her on her South Georgia farm during school vacations when I was an adolescent.

There were two double beds in the bedroom. They were situated head to head with a small walk space between, and the two heads were beside an open window where we slept summer nights with an incoming breeze and the sound of crickets.

Confederate_Flag_3650She had two full-time employees for decades. One was the maid, Willie. The other was the handyman, Cap. They lived as man and wife in a house owned by my grandmother. It was down the road a piece.

The house down the road aspired to being a shack. Its unpainted, wooden walls were sieves, and it leaned ominously on brick footings. When I was about 15, my grandmother built them a new house almost directly across the clay road from her own home. She built this simple but sturdy house because she cared about them.

Willie was like part of our family when I was growing up, and my grandmother took care of all her needs. She took care of Cap’s too, which included bailing him out of jail after his frequent weekend benders. Cap was fond of bourbon.

My grandmother owned a Ford sedan. Sometimes, she would need Cap for a chore elsewhere, perhaps in nearby Sylvester, the town. They would get into the Ford, her up front driving, Cap sitting in the back seat, just like in buses in those times.

Driving Miss Daisy but with the roles reversed.

I cannot imagine that she told Cap to sit in the back seat, but he did, and she never indicated that he should do otherwise. It’s just how things were.

Though my grandmother was the sweetest woman imaginable, beloved by all, especially me, she reflected her times. I once asked her how she would view a daughter marrying a black man. She said she’d prefer the daughter be dead, and she meant it.

I grew up in segregated public schools. There were no black classmates though I did not finish high school till 1962, which was after schools were integrated in areas of the South. This was due in part because there simply were no black neighborhoods near me.

I didn’t come into normal contact with blacks till I joined the Air Force at age 18. Before that, my contacts were just with Willie and Cap and the occasional black kids with whom I played near my grandparents’ farm. But that was infrequent.

Moving down one generation to my parents, we find a couple of flaming lefty liberals, especially my father. My mother got that way, I imagine, because of my father. It certainly was not due to the home she grew up in.

My mother, who spoke like Scarlett O’Hara, never voiced one kind word about “the Yankees.” And my father was not very keen on them either.

I wonder how my parents, who were hardcore Democrats of the “civil rights” variety, and union fans, would view the nutty political and racial conflicts of today.

24 thoughts on “Confessions of a cracker

  1. “Don’t forget where you came from” is sometimes cited to remind those who stray from their roots. I am at least bi-rooted, coming from Alabamian and New Yorkish ancestry in the U.S. One of the branches, the Sims, were doctors of divinity. My great-great-grandfather Sims was chancellor of Syracuse University founded by Methodist Episcopal devotees way back when. I wish I could tap the great beyond for some input from him about these times I live in.

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    1. Carole: Interesting background. Considering where I’ve landed, I’ve strayed very far from my roots. My sister lives in California, also a long way from Georgia. My father’s sole sister fled to Maine where she lived for decades. Seems we cannot get sufficiently far enough from Georgia, some of us. And my daughter, who was born in New Orleans, now lives in Georgia, the only one of us there now, and she pointedly moved there.

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  2. I’ve always maintained that slavery was the welfare system of the day. THe owners took care of them, made sure they had food and shelter, and assumed responsibility for offspring, etc. The slaves had a far better life than they would have had if they had been left on the street to provide for themselves. Think about the homeless situations today. Around the ’70s, the company where I worked hired a recently released inmate. He was totally unable to manage his affairs. His supervisor would come with enough cash to cash the ex-inmate’s paycheck, withholding about 50% to be dished out next week for food, and money for gas to get to work. In effect, modern day independent welfare. Eventually the guy quit, and ended up back on the street. It wasn’t long before he was back in prison. Sadly, there are lots of people who are not prepared to live on their own in today’s society. Phil

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    1. Phil: The welfare system of the day. I’ve never heard that one before, but I get your drift. Of course, if their African brethren in cahoots with the white slavers had never shipped them across the pond in the first place, well, that would have been far better. But that’s not what happened. The slave trade was alive and well in Central Africa well into the latter part of the 19th Century. At that time, it was run primarily by Mohammedans because it had been outlawed in the civilized white world. Indeed, where slavery exists today is mostly in Mohammedan lands. Another reason, among many, to dislike Mohammedans.

      The black American family was far more stable and intact in the early 20th century than it is today.

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  3. Black people were raised on stories of the horrors of slavery, mostly told by Yankees. But think about it, if one has a lot of money invested in something, are they going to beat the living tar out of it? Who would wail on their 250,000-dollar tractor? Slaves were invested capital. If one got sick and died on the owner, it was a great loss.

    After the War of Northern Aggression, my great grandfather moved from Arkansas to Texas. A couple of ex-slaves went with him. They were family. That may not have been the case for others, but it was for them.

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    1. Señor Gill: As I know it, some slave owners treated the slaves fairly well. Some treated them abominably. And some were in between. When I say some treated them fairly well, that overlooks the central problem, that they were slaves. It was a nasty institution back then, and it still is today because it still exists today. Mostly in the Mohammedan world.

      When I was a kid, I often saw shacks scattered in the Georgia countryside where large black families lived, and they made their meager living picking cotton and other such work. My maternal grandfather had many, many acres of cotton. I doubt their living conditions were much better than they’d been a century earlier. Except for their not being slaves anymore, for all the good it did them. That was the 1950s.

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      1. A good many blacks went from slavery to the peonage of sharecrop farming. Not much change in lifestyle, sad to say. If they became morticians or bootleggers, they had a chance out of it.

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      2. Theologian C.S. Lewis, “Equality,” in Present Concerns: “I am a democrat [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man … Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

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        1. Creigh: I’ll pass on Lewis because, in part, I’m not a Christian. As for Aristotle, I’ve never considered it specifically, but that some are fit only to be slaves holds some merit. They would be the people I fondly call nincompoops. There is no shortage of nincompoops. As for no men being fit to be masters, I disagree. Some would. Me, for instance. I would be a good and just master.

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  4. Just like most children of single mothers, I knew only my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was short, resembled Phil Silvers, wore custom-made clothing right down to his boots, and always had the best — and let everyone know that he did. He was constantly on, expansive, opinionated, energetic, loud, and was one of those kinds of people who never met a stranger. And he loved red as much as he loved his bourbon. And he had a mistress, Sevilla, who was always around and referred to as his business partner. I would be in college before I figured out that she was more than that. Sevilla was one of the first independent, well-off women I ever knew. I liked her. Because my grandmother’s funeral was a disaster two years prior, I took charge of my grandfather’s, having him dressed in his favorite custom-made but now mended shirt, an old suede jacket, and his Lucchese boots, along with a box of peppermint Life Savers, the Shriners conducting the service amid music from the 1920s.

    My grandmother, who thought her birth name Jennie lacked class so she called herself something else, divided the world into two classes: our kind and not our kind. She was cold, well-dressed, and smoked cigarettes. Grandmotherly and warm would never describe her, but you could have a good time with her if you were into shopping, lunching, reading magazines, playing cards, and smoking cigarettes, which is how she spent most of her time, anyway. She was the last woman I ever knew who never drove a car. I think she probably thought it beneath her station in life. She wore way too much makeup, particularly blue eye shadow and was buried in light blue satin dress.

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    1. Ms. Shoes: Hearing details of your family background always leaves me with my mouth agape, figuratively speaking. It’s like a Mexican soap opera. You should delve into it more deeply on your own, woefully underused, website.

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    1. Ms. Shoes: The bogus reasoning behind this reparations nonsense never ceases to amuse. Thanks for the link. Can you imagine one of these nincompoops actually becoming president? Jeez. Meanwhile, the #WalkAway movement expands.

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  5. True, a great many people trace their ancestry to the time of the great immigration from 1870 to 1930. These folks had nothing to do with slavery, yet they are condemned based upon their skin color. Their descendants will have to pay up any way. People who never had slaves will have to pay people who never were slaves. The more the Democrats talk about trash like this, the more those that actually get off of their butts and vote are turned off on them.
    For what it is worth, my great-grandfather came back from the war penniless. His property was burned and eventually some carpetbagger owned the land.
    Now I see the Elizabeth Pocahontas Warren wants us to pay reparations to the gay people. Where will it stop?

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  6. History is a good thing, whether you want it to be or not.
    It does not go away, even when flogged and mistreated.
    It can be misinterpreted, rewritten, reviled and much more.
    It does not go away.

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  7. I have always wondered where the term cracker came from. I asked a guy from Savannah once and he got a little perturbed and didn’t answer. Can you enlighten this poor Yankee? TIA

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    1. Gerard, P.S.: Of course, one must always check online for information before announcing one’s ignorance. I see this, among other things:

      1. A slang term that describes a white person; utilized as an insult; some say it is the equivalent of the “n-word” that describes black people, except for, you know, the fact that black people were actually enslaved and treated as property in America; derives from slaveowners “cracking” the whip to drive their slaves; same as cracka and similar to honkey.

      2. Cracker, sometimes white cracker or cracka, is an ethnic slur for white people, used especially for poor rural whites in the Southern United States. It is also at times used indiscriminately and pejoratively against any person of white background. However, it is sometimes used in a neutral or positive context or self-descriptively with pride in reference to a native of Florida or Georgia.

      3. The epithet cracker has been applied in a derogatory way, like redneck, to rural, non-elite white southerners, more specifically to those of south Georgia and north Florida. Folk etymology claims the term originated either from their cracking, or pounding, of corn (rather than taking it to mill), or from their use of whips to drive cattle. The latter explanation makes sense, because in piney-woods Georgia and Florida pastoral yeomen did use bullwhips with “cracker” tips to herd cattle.
      The true history of the name, however, is more involved and shows a shift in application over time. Linguists now believe the original root to be the Gaelic craic, still used in Ireland (anglicized in spelling to crack) for “entertaining conversation.” The English meaning of cracker as a braggart appears by Elizabethan times, as, for example, in Shakespeare’s King John (1595): “What cracker is this . . . that deafes our ears / With this abundance of superfluous breath?”

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    2. Gerard, P.S. 2: One of those definitions narrows the Cracker range to South Georgia and North Florida. Since I lived in both of those areas until I was 17, that must make me a double Cracker. Perhaps I’ll put some peanut butter in between. My paternal grandparents, whenever they went on a road trip, always packed a supply of Saltines, putting peanut butter between each two as a nice travel snack. They downed them with Coca-Cola.

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  8. Dear Felipe: Thank you for this fascinating post. I enjoyed not only for the contents but your spare yet powerful writing style. (Good copy editing too!)
    I came over from Cuba when I was 14 and, frankly, don’t know much about the Civil War. I lived in New York and Chicago too, where the local heroes were Lincoln, Grant and Sheridan but hardly Robert E. Lee, and the topic didn’t come up much in high school. Stew grew up in Iowa and he says the Civil War wasn’t much mentioned in high school either, and he didn’t know a single black person until he went off to college near Milwaukee.

    Your observation about different folks in your family having different political bents is not surprising. There are Northern racists and Southern liberals. Different folks think differently; the are not machine-made. Just in today’s paper I learned that Woodrow Wilson, for example was quite the racist dude, and LBJ supported segregationist causes until he changed his tune.

    From what I know, the root of the Southern rebellion was the issue of slavery, not any abstract idea about “state rights.” I had an exchange about Robert E. Lee with His Honor Steve Cotton, and I think I actually got Steve to admit that for all his other personal virtues, Lee was a traitor for leading a war to overthrow the established government of the U.S.

    I also loved my maternal grandmother Digna, whose husband died before I was born. I’ve been told that both my paternal grandparents loved me very much, but because of the vagaries of family feuds, etc., never got to know either one very well, and that is a damn shame. My paternal grandfather used to write little poems to me on each of my birthdays, extolling my looks, brains, etc. (imaginative fellow he was), and I still have some of those mementos.

    al

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    1. Señor Lanier: Thanks for the kind words. I do my best. You’re no piker either.

      It’s been so long since I was in high school that I don’t recall how much coverage the Civil War got. One wonders if the coverage was different in the South than it was in other parts of the country. Woody Wilson was a racist? Well, sure. Almost everyone shared those attitudes a century or more ago. It’s just how it was. It’s also silly and unfair to apply today’s value systems to previous epochs.

      The Civil War was about slavery. You’ll hear arguments that it wasn’t, but it was. As for Gen. Lee being a traitor, well, sure he was since the South lost. Had the South won, he wouldn’t have been a traitor. He would have continued a national hero. To the victor go the spoils.

      No one has ever written poems to me, on my birthday or otherwise. Damn.

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