Five decades removed from his own Southern childhood, novelist Erskine Caldwell sets out on a journey to find an old friend—a friend lost to him through the culture of segregation. As Caldwell follows a trail through Georgia, South Carolina, and much of the Deep South in search of his black childhood friend Bisco, his interviews with white and black Americans expose a range of attitudes that are tragic, if not surprising. Published first in the mid-1960s just as the South was undergoing a radical transformation by freedom marches and sit-ins, In Search of Bisco offers a heartfelt account of the civil rights movement by one of the region’s fiercest critics and most prominent sons. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erskine Caldwell including rare photos and never-before-seen documents courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library.
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In Search of Bisco
By Erskine Caldwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Erskine Caldwell
All rights reserved.
The scene of my first becoming aware of the existence of color differences among people was my birthplace on an isolated farm deep in the piney-wood country of the red clay hills of Coweta County in Middle Georgia. My introduction to the reality of a dividing line between white-skin people and black-skin people was abrupt.
The time remembered in the beginning was during the first decade of the century when I was five-years-old-going-on-six. My only playmate was a Negro boy called Bisco whose father was a tall, lean, one-mule sharecropper on the adjoining cotton farm and whose mother was a huge soft-fleshed woman who had often let both of us sit on her lap at the same time while she sang mournful songs to us.
My playmate's given name may have been Nabisco or Frisco or Brisco, but to me he was Bisco and he called me Esk. We were within a few weeks of being the same age and neither of us had brothers or sisters for playmates.
Bisco had close-cropped kinky black hair, mulatto-colored skin, a chubby round face, an open-mouth grin, and he went barefooted in summer and winter. Whenever we played rough-and-tumble and wrestled on the ground, cockleburs and sawdust and weedfluff clung to his hair. He had a habit of suddenly calling quits and stopping our playing rough-and-tumble once in a while to stand up and brush the burs and chaff from his head with quick flailing motions of his hands. After that Bisco would get down on the ground again and wrestle some more.
On this particular day, now so long ago, after a morning of wrestling, Bisco and I had been playing with our hand-whittled wooden boats through an autumn afternoon in the smooth white sand under my mother and father's high-pillared, four-room, breezeway house. Night came early in late autumn in Middle Georgia and there was a chilly dampness in the gusty wind.
Bisco began to shiver all over as soon as the sun went down and, flailing the sand and sawdust from his hair, he said he was going home. I begged him to stay and play just a little while longer, but he said he was cold and wanted to go home where it would be warm by the fireplace. He lived with his mother and father in a one-room-and-kitchen-lean-to cabin in the middle of a cotton patch no more than a quarter of a mile away. I could see the blue smoke of a pitch-pine fire coming from the chimney of the clay-chinked log cabin, and there was a good smell of pine smoke coming all the way to my house.
His teeth chattering with cold, Bisco picked up his boats and started down the path through the tall blackberry thicket in the twilight. He looked backward at me several times without saying a word and, just before he started through the thicket, I ran to catch up with him.
I had often gone to Bisco's house to play in his yard, but always in the daytime and never after dark, and this time I wanted so much to keep on playing with him that I had no thought of asking my parents if I could go home with him.
Both of us were shivering with cold when we got to the cabin and Bisco's mother told us to stand on the brick hearth and warm ourselves in front of the flaming pine-log fire. It was Bisco's suppertime, and his mother brought both of us plates of pan-fried pork chops and helpings of chitterling bread and large tin cups of hot collard pot-likker. We sat down in front of the roaring fire and ate from the plates on the hearth.
As soon as we had finished eating, Bisco's mother undressed him and put him into the big high-posted bed and covered him with colorful cotton patchwork quilts. While she was tucking him in bed, I took off my shirt and pants and tried to get under the covers with him.
Gently, but firmly, his mother took me by the hand and made me stand in front of the fireplace while she dressed me. During all that time I was begging her to let me stay and get into bed with Bisco, but she was shaking her head and telling me that my mother wanted me to come home and sleep in my own bed. Pleading and begging and tears had no effect at all, and I was taken by her warm hand and led down the path through the cotton patch in the darkness toward the blackberry thicket and my own home.
Just as we were entering the path through the thicket, we saw my father coming toward us with a lantern in his hand. In the dim light he appeared to be neither surprised nor angry when he reached for me to take me home, but I could see him shaking his head in the lantern light when I began begging him to let me go back and spend the night with Bisco under the thick warm quilts.
I began to cry when I had to release my grip on the Negro woman's warm hand, but my father picked me up and, holding the lantern in his other hand, we went along the thicket path to our house. I stopped crying then and put my arms around my father's neck to keep warm in the cold night. As we went toward home in the lantern light, he was saying that my mother wanted me to sleep in my own bed so she would know where I was and that Bisco's mother wanted him to sleep in his own bed so she could watch over him and not be worried about his being away from home after dark.
Just before reaching our house, I saw my mother waiting for us in the lighted doorway and my father put me down and I ran to the porch. When I begged her to let me spend the next night with Bisco, she said that it was time to put a stop to anything like that and that I was never to go to his house again. When I asked her why, she said that it was because I was white and he was Negro, and that I was old enough to learn that we had to live in separate houses.
Thinking then only of the blazing pine-log fire and the big quilt-covered bed in Bisco's house, I was still unhappy about having been brought home. But even when I told my mother that Bisco always had fried pork chops and chitterling bread and collard pot-likker for supper, she was still unrelenting. However, she said that if I would promise never to go to his house again, I could have the same things for supper sometime. It took me a long time to make a promise like that because Bisco was my friend and I was still unhappy about it even when she said I could put my plate on the hearth in front of the fireplace and eat supper exactly like Bisco did in his house.
All that took place a long time ago in years. Nevertheless, in both time and implication, the recollection of it has continued to remain clear and meaningful and unchanging.
The scene of my next recollection of Negro life in the United States was near the Mississippi River on a country road in the soft, dark, rain-damp soil of Tipton County in West Tennessee. I was about fourteen years old at the time and in the eighth grade of school.
I was walking alone along the muddy road from school one afternoon in September when, midway of the three miles from school to home, I saw a group of about a dozen white farmers and timber cutters talking excitedly in front of the grocery store at the crossroads. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon and the heat of summer was still clinging to the earth. The men were dressed, as they usually were at that time of the week, in mud-stained bibbed overalls and were wearing sun-browned field-straw hats. I sat down on the weedy bank of the drain ditch on the far side of the dirt road and wondered what the gesturing, loud-talking, tobacco-chewing men were talking about so excitedly.
It was not unusual to see that many white farmers and timber cutters at the crossroads store on Saturday afternoon, and at such a time ordinarily there would have been as many Negro men talking among themselves in a separate group nearby. However, it was then the middle of the week and there was no Negro within sight.
I had been sitting on the ditch bank for about a quarter of an hour, too far away to be able to hear what was being said, and by then I was curious to find out what had happened that was the cause of so much excitement. Usually, such a group of farmers and timbermen would have laughed from time to time and there would have been a few intervals of silence. But this time several men were talking at once and nobody had laughed. I crossed the road and went close enough to the men to be able to hear what was being said.
A schoolboy among men in those years knew better than to ask a prying question or to interrupt adult conversation at a country store without specific invitation. Otherwise, if he had made such a mistake, it was likely that he would get a box on the ears or a splatter of tobacco juice in the eyes.
So many men were talking, and doing so without the usual vagueness of casual conversation, that it was not long until I had put enough together to learn that a young Negro boy named Sonny Brown had been accused of raping a twenty-year-old white girl on a farm two miles away. Early in the morning of that same day, as I heard it, Sonny, instead of going into hiding or running away, had gone to work as usual at the lumber mill where he had a job shoveling sawdust. The father of the girl, a brother, and several other men had gone to the lumber mill, strung Sonny from the limb of a tree, and blasted his life away with shotguns.
I had never seen the girl they were talking about, but I had heard some of the older boys at school tell how easy it was for anybody to buy a sack of sugar-coated gumdrops or chocolate candy and go for a walk in the woods with her and watch her strip naked. The older boys said she always begged for intercourse after getting naked and eating the candy. I had seen Sonny nearly every time I went to the crossroads store on Saturday afternoons and he and I had gone fishing together in Blue Creek twice that summer.
While I had been listening, the arguments among the men had become tense and voices were loud. Some of the men were saying they were sure that the girl, who had been a known prostitute for several years, had deliberately lied about being raped and that Sonny should not have been lynched. Others were saying that no Negro who had had sexual intercourse with a white girl, even a whore, ought to be allowed to stay alive. Angry threats were being made and some of the men were ready to fight.
I knew it was no place for a schoolboy at a time like that, because somebody might take out a pistol and begin shooting. I backed away from the crowd and went down the road toward home. There were frequent rumors of lynchings along the Mississippi River, as well as occasional newspaper reports of them, and such happenings were not unusual in the hot months of summer and early autumn.
However, for a long time afterward I wondered how a Negro boy anywhere would have a chance to prove, before he was lynched, that he was not guilty of raping a white girl who enticed teen-age boys of both races to give her some candy in exchange for sexual intercourse.
West Tennessee was far from Middle Georgia, but I could not keep from wondering if what had happened to Sonny would ever happen to Bisco.
The next scene of a vivid recollection of Negro life in the South was in the sand-clay level lands just below the fall line of the Piedmont Plateau in Jefferson County of East Georgia. I was about sixteen years old then and it was during the time when I spent Sunday afternoons all summer long at a chain-gang stockade where forty or more Negro convicts were shackled, balled, and chained.
The convicts, uniformly dressed in black-and-white striped pants and shirts, worked six days of the week on county roads from sunup to sundown. They were fed a pot of stew and a wedge of corn pone three times a day and, shackled with ball-and-chain leg-irons around the clock, were locked in six-foot-long movable iron cages during the hours of darkness. Their only relative freedom, though still never without ball-and-chain, was during their one day of rest on Sunday.
Wives, children, and other Negroes were never permitted to enter the stockade at any time. However, as though the convicts were being given the privilege of being on exhibition, the guards had no objection to any white person entering the compound on Sunday and staying until the prisoners were locked in their cages at sundown.
I began going to the stockade on Sunday afternoons, not because of curiosity, but because I knew one of the Negroes. His name was Roy and he had been a yardboy for a neighbor in our part of town since he was fifteen years old. When he was sixteen, he had been accused of stealing a heavy iron wash-pot from the backyard where he worked. Even though such a pot was too heavy for any one man to lift, and it had not been sold for scrap iron at the junk-yard, Roy had been convicted of theft and sentenced to two years at hard labor on the county chain gang.
I was sure that Roy had not taken the iron wash-pot, not only because it was too heavy for a man to carry, but because he told me he had not taken it. I had known him for more than a year before he was sentenced to the chain gang and I was certain he was telling the truth.
Just the same, Roy was on the chain gang and there was no likelihood of his being released until he had served the two-year term. I began going to see him at work camp on Sunday afternoons and he shined my shoes and I would ask him what he wanted that I could get for him. Ever since I had seen Roy the first time, he had reminded me of Bisco. I had no idea what Bisco would actually look like at the age of sixteen, but the three of us were the same age, and I remembered Bisco being mulatto-colored, just as Roy was, and both of them had the same open-mouth grin and friendly squint of the eyes. It was almost like being with Bisco when I went to see Roy.
The price of a shoe shine in the stockade was five cents. This was the only money a convict was permitted to earn and he had to pay for shoe polish from his earnings. Since there were forty or more Negroes on the chain gang, and rarely more than a dozen white visitors on a Sunday, it was not often that many of them could earn as much as a nickel.
At first, each time I gave Roy a nickel for a shine he would hand it back and ask me to bring him a sack of makings—flaked tobacco and cigarette papers. I soon got into the habit of taking the makings with me on Sundays and giving them to Roy as soon as I got there. Never failing to thank me, he would then roll a cigarette and puff slowly with a grateful squinting of his eyes. After that, he would spend the next hour polishing and shining my shoes while we talked about everything we could think of.
Sometimes Roy and I talked about baseball and hunting and fishing, at other times it would be about a murder or a fire or an accident that had happened to somebody in town. The convicts on the chain gang were always making up jokes and Roy would tell me all the new ones he had heard. Some of the convicts around us would usually play-the-dozens, which was a continuous sing-song festival of improvised lyrics extolling sexual aberrations and yearnings, but Roy always said that kind of talk was too vulgar for him and that he did not want to have anything to do with it. He never failed to ask me before the day was over if I knew how his mother was and if I had seen any of his brothers and sisters. And then finally, when I was leaving the stockade, I would ask Roy what else besides makings he would like for me to bring him the next time I came.
As though he felt he would be asking too much of a favor, he would say that if he ever earned a dime on Sunday he would be able to pay for two sacks of makings and have enough tobacco to last a whole week. I was soon bringing him two sacks of makings and a can of shoe polish when he needed it.
Toward the end of summer, a little more than a week before the work camp was to be moved about fifteen miles to another part of the county, I asked Roy to tell me just one other thing he would like to have most of all. Without hesitation, and as though he had been thinking about it for a long time, he said other than makings what he wanted most of all were some of the biggest fried pork chops that ever grew on a hog.
The chain-gang guards permitted no packages or bundles of any kind, other than tobacco and shoe polish, to be brought into the stockade, and everyone who entered on Sunday afternoon was searched for a file or pistol at the gate. However, I was confident that I would be able to smuggle pork chops to Roy by putting them inside my shirt and holding my arms tightly against them. I cooked four of them at home the next Sunday morning, wrapped each one in a piece of newspaper, and placed them inside my shirt.
Excerpted from In Search of Bisco by Erskine Caldwell. Copyright © 1965 Erskine Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- A Biography of Erskine Caldwell