By Deanne Stephens Nuwer
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Geophagy, or dirt eating, has long been associated with the South, particularly with enslaved populations as well as poor whites. Neither of these groups had social or political influence, and many of the privileged classes pointed out that there were glaring social and economic differences between those who ate dirt and those who did not. By the early nineteenth century, the term “dirt eater” had become a pejorative one for whites as well as blacks. Dirt eating within the slave populations has been studied over the last two centuries. William Dosite Postell, who includes dirt eating as part of slave fitness in The Health of Slaves on Southern Plantations (1951), explained that his findings were based on what Dr. William M. Carpenter, a nineteenth-century professor at Louisiana Medical College, labeled Cachexia Africana in the New Orleans Medical Journal (1844; qtd. in “Reviews”). Both Postell and Carpenter concluded that plantation owners believed dirt eating was detrimental to the health of their slaves and attributed it to “digestive disturbances” (Postell 82). While Postell did not suggest that dirt eating was an uncontrollable habit, he cited it as one more example of the many health issues plaguing enslaved people. The topic has continued to inspire research and intrigue scholars.
In this essay, I want to go beyond Postell’s research on dirt eating since he did not analyze it within the cultural context of the South. Exploring the history and persistence of dirt eating over two centuries reveals much about Southern views of race, class, and nutrition. Playing a pivotal role in defining the health and eating habits of African Americans and poor whites alike in the antebellum and contemporary South, dirt eating shows how these two groups were tied to and intimately associated with the earth through their [End Page 141] dependency on the soil—not only for their livelihood but for their identity, status, and even future. Just as the farmer Wang Lung in Pearl S. Buck’s popular novel The Good Earth (1931) gave his children dirt to eat when faced with famine (84), poor whites and African Americans in the antebellum and early twentieth-century South relied upon the earth for their sustenance.
Historians have extensively explored antebellum Southern society, carefully defining its social stratifications. Clement Eaton, for instance, in A History of the Old South (1949), studied the established stereotypical categories and characteristics of Southern society that have lingered. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Old South insofar as dirt eating was concerned is that it was inescapably agrarian, entrenched in traditionalism and provincialism. Thus those in power fought to retain slavery to uphold the Southern economy based on cash crops such as tobacco and cotton. Existing on the edges of that society was an unfortunate class—“poor whites”—who in addition to being stigmatized as clay eaters, were called “piney woods folk,” and “crackers.” These “poor whites” were nuisances and “objectionable neighbors,” according to Eaton (463). Ulrich Phillips further referred to clay eating as a “vicious practice” of the “plain people” in his Life and Labor in the Old South (347). Ironically, these dirt eaters as a class lived mostly in the less fertile areas of the Southeast, particularly in the Carolinas and Georgia.
As early as 1851, the epithet “dirt eater” was linked to whites who were not acceptable on any level of Southern society. The Daily Alabama Journal that year proclaimed that white people “opposed to secession are . . . Union loving men, dirt eaters” (“Champion”). Another report warned readers about a man named Hayden, who was a “regular old tramping” thief who had stolen money from local businesses. It cautioned the public to be careful when dealing with this “lazy” man who “looks as if he ate dirt” (“Look Out”). From a different perspective and region of the country, an article from the Springfield [Massachusetts] Union conjectured that as a result of the Civil War, the South would be a place where upper class whites could live rather than just the “dirt eating whites” and continued by...
From: The Southern Quarterly, Volume 53, Numbers 3/4, Spring/Summer 2016, pp. 141-155