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Mourning the fading of Florida's Cracker tradition

A recent story in a Florida newspaper, titled "Chiles' native tongue speaks to a new state," describes the far-reaching significance of our gubernatorial campaign. It made me realize anew that people born here before the 1950s are fast becoming cultural outsiders in this vanishing paradise we call home.

"Gov. Lawton Chiles speaks Cracker about as well as any politician who ever roamed Florida's towns and cities in search of votes," the article states. "The trouble is that Florida is growing more multicultural and diverse by the day . . . diluted by a steady flood of new residents from the eastern half of the United States and Latin America."

Everything is changing. And this change is destroying our traditions _ permanently alteing our lives in ways that diminish our sense ofwho we are. For that reason, many natives like me are mourning the passing of one of our most colorful traditions: Florida Crackerdom. The term Cracker has several definitions. Floridians prefer the one claiming that the original Crackers were white cowboys who cracked whips as they drove cattle across the peninsula. Another version states that Crackers were the poor Georgia and North Florida whites who pounded or cracked corn to make grits, flour and meal.

For our purposes, Crackers are whites descended from Scotch-Irish frontiersmen in the South, especially in Georgia and North Florida. Unfortunately, because the South is associated with racism, Cracker has taken on derogatory connotations everywhere except among those who consider themselves members of the group. Blacks, for example, have always used Cracker as a racial epithet aimed at Southern whites in particular and whites elsewhere in general. The most bizarre use of the term occurred earlier this year when Nation of Islam firebrand Khalid Abdul Muhammad called the pope "a no good Cracker." This use, although way off target, comes directly from generations of racism blacks suffered at the hands of people with white skin.

Crackerdom has always been an integral part of black life in the South. In Putnam and Lake counties, for instance, I lived in Cracker houses that my grandparents built with the help of Crackers for whom they sharecropped. These unpretentious, practical structures, with their open breezeways, wide porches, huge clay-lined fireplaces and jutting pine rafters, were an endless source of joy for young children with healthy imaginations. Snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, spiders, flies, mosquitoes, all found their way through the holes in the floors, walls and windows. Nothing was more soothing than lying in bed at night listening to raindrops pound our rusty tin roof.

And there were the Crackers themselves, the women, men and children who entered our lives during almost every waking moment. We never knew what to make of them; they were inscrutable. At times they seemed to respect us as fellow humans. Each year, for example, an old man who lived across the pond from us would butcher a hog. He would give my grandfather the ribs, the chitlins, the feet, the tail and, of course, the head for cheese and souse. But the very next day, the same old man, after a few swigs, could be heard swearing that "them damned niggers ain't no good! I gotta mind to run 'em all outta town."

Their greatest chronicler, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, had a love-hate relationship with them when she lived among Crackers at Cross Creek. "These people are "lawless' by an anomaly," she told Maxwell Perkins, her editor. "They are living an entirely natural, and very hard, life, disturbing no one. . . . Yet almost everything they do is illegal. And everything they do is necessary to sustain life." They hunted out of season and fished beyond the limit. They didn't believe in licenses of any kind. The earth was theirs to pluck _ without government interference.

My grandfather had a utilitarian view of them. "If I needs me something, I goes and sees a Cracker boy," he would say. The men in my family bought white lightning, auto parts and hunting and fishing supplies from them. A Cracker always had a cow, goat or hog to sell at a good price. When you needed a good hunting dog, you went to a Cracker.

Although we knew that most of the local Crackers were racists, we maintained a civilized relationship with them. In return for their material goods, we gave them our loyalty and sweat. We did their scut work _ without malice. And I can't count the number of times "revenuers" threatened us with jail if we didn't turn in the moonshiners. But we kept our mouths shut. We knew who rustled cattle and whostole citrus. "You don't do a Judas on yo' brothers in crime," my grandfather would say.

The women, too, had a special relationship. The whites entrusted their children's lives to the women in my family. My grandmother, a midwife, even delivered three white babies. When the daughter of a prominent Cracker nearly died from a miscarriage, the man paid my grandmother to nurse the woman back to health.

This is the same paradoxical stock from which Gov. Chiles is cut. He was born and reared in Lakeland, where Jim Crow felt right at home. Yet Chiles is no racist. He's appointed more African-Americans to office than any other Florida governor. Win or lose on Nov. 8, he'll be the last proud Cracker to serve as a governor here. Recent transplants to our state seem to be glad. I'm not.

Should he lose, I'll miss Chiles' Cracker wit. During the first gubernatorial debate, for example, Jeb Bush, the opponent, tried to blame the buildup of national debt during the 1980s on Chiles, who had been chairman of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. "I know you have a lot of first-hand knowledge about the federal debt," a sarcastic Jeb Bush said, apparently having forgotten that his father, George Bush, had been vice president and president during that period _ and had never once submitted a balanced budget to Congress.

A seasoned Chiles replied, "Gosh, it seems like there was somebody else above me sending those budgets. Jeb, there's a Cracker saying: Never mention rope in a house where there's been a hanging." Now that's vintage Cracker wisdom _ old Florida style.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

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