The Power And The Pain Of The Word “Cracker”

I was tasked with cleaning my grandmother’s basement. It always floods during the winter when the snow melts, so of course, I had to take care of it several months in advance. Though to be honest, I didn’t mind since CNN was airing their “N-Word vs. Cracker: Which Is Worse?” debate. It seemed ridiculous to me that CNN wouldn’t realize that hey, maybe the word you can’t spell out on television is worse.

But I quickly changed my tune.

While cleaning the basement, I stumbled across a 1976 issue of Time magazine. My grandmother was always a bit of a collector, so I expected a find like this. But what I didn’t expect was the cover story: “The Power And The Pain Of The Word Cracker.” This had to be a joke, yes? The word “cracker” doesn’t have any real power to inflict pain on white people.

I took a breather on the edge of my grandmother’s unused treadmill to read the article. The photo attached with the article was a still from an episode of The Jeffersons. The article went on to explain that Sherman Hemsley’s character calls a white character “honky” four times in the span of thirty seconds, then follows the insult with calling him a “cracker.” Most of that language seemed outdated to me, I mean, who even says “honky” besides racist steering wheels?

But in 1976, those words were incredibly hurtful. Time reprinted letters that were mailed to CBS from concerned viewers, ranging from those emotionally affected by the program’s harsh language and those who worried about The Jeffersons airing during primetime when children are watching.

A brief sampling:

Maybe if Sherman Hemsley and his band of jerks on the writing team knew the history of the word cracker, they wouldn’t be so quick to throw it around with reckless abandon. It etymology dates back to the 18th century, when slave foremen used whips to discipline slaves. They were ‘cracking the whip,’ as it were, and the term become a popular one in the antebellum South. But that was over two hundred years ago, why must white people be constantly reminded that they once used to beat blacks savagely?

I didn’t want to write this letter. I didn’t want to be the sort that complains. But I was at the grocery store this morning and I broke down in tears when my daughter asked if we should buy Saltines, because we’re crackers. When I got home, my husband told me that I had to take a stand.

They’re allowed to call us cracker, but what if I were to use my own c-word? You’d never be able to call a black person a coon to remind them of who they were historically, but you always have to remind us!

It’s just not fair that the conversation is always about what happened to black people historically. They need to get over it and live in the now, because things are different. They have their own television shows now, what more could they want?

You know, I live in New York. And I can barely ride the subway because the word nigger is tossed around. It’s just tossed around! They can call themselves that, but we can’t? And in turn, they can call us cracker too?

I’m not sure what a cracker is, but please stop putting this negro show on CBS. You’re ruining my favorite network.

I had no idea that there was so much historical pain associated with the word “cracker” and I resolved never to use it again. The article had informed me, but hadn’t quite moved me until I found one last account from a woman in Savannah, Georgia.

I was working in my restaurant, cooking up some nice jambalaya for the morning. A couple of colored fellas came in and they asked for the jambalaya fresh off the stove. We weren’t open yet, but I could tell they were hungry so I quickly obliged like the Good Samaritan I aspire to be. Only, once I served them they asked for some crackers. I told them I didn’t have any. So they called me a cracker. Repeatedly. I was scarred for life. And watching The Jeffersons this week, all of those horrid memories came flooding back. Because one the colored fellas who came in to my store? It was Sherman Hemsley. And here he was, attacking me all over again.

The woman who wrote that letter was a young Paula Deen. And it was that moment I finally succumbed to my emotions. I understood her pain and I cried for her. TC mark

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