The premise of the story is based on actual events of shame which happened in Mississippi in 1923.
Quotes which influenced the story:
“His mother or aunt or teacher long ago carefully prepared him, explaining that he as an individual can live in dignity, even though he as a Negro cannot.” (P49)
“I have learned that people in uniform, particularly officers, rarely descend to show discrimination...” (P55)
“This confirms my contention that the average Southern white is more properly disposed than he dares allow his neighbor to see, that he is more afraid of his fellow white racist than he is of the Negro.” (P156)
“Their look said: “You white bastard, you ofay sonofabitch, what are you doing wa1king these streets?” just as the whites’ look had said a few days before...” (P123)
“It was thrown in my face. I saw it not as a white man and not as a Negro, but as a human parent.” (P113)
by Vickie Spencer
The colored folk in the cemetery looked at me as if I were a crazy foreigner dressed in a way and acting like someone they'd never seen before, I was a source of curiosity for them. They pointed their fingers, raised their eyebrows, and turned away to talk about the strange looking white man walking amongst the graves. Some Negroes stared daggers at me as if physically attacking me. They acted like I was walking on sacred ground and shouldn’t even be alive. The colored folk there were placing flowers on the newly buried dead found after the flood. They were dressed in whatever nice clothes they had left, which wasn’t much after the flood washed most of what they owned down river and out to sea. I know I was an unusual sight. It wasn’t often that a white person sought out a grave in the cemetery for black people down in here in Mississippi. Jim Crow and discrimination was alive and well in these parts of the country. I walked up to the little shanty that served as an office for the cemetery. The small black man that was the caretaker watched me with a skeptical eye. I approached him. He scratched his head, and I knew the sight of me baffled him. He spoke softly to me with eyes cast down, and I thought he was trying hard to control the smile that kept trying to sneak onto its face at the corner of his mouth. “How, sir. may I help you?” was his bright and instant reply to my presence.
“I am looking for the grave of James Gotten. Could you please tell me where I might find it.” I looked him straight in the eye and spoke with strength of conviction in my voice. I was conveying to him I deserved to be in the cemetery just as well as anyone else, even if my appearance was bizarre and presence unwanted. The caretaker cleared his throat and looked down at the ground still wet from the floodwaters.
“You looking for James Gotten, well I know right were he is buried at, but sir I am a might curious at your attire for coming to pay your respects.” I sensed the laughter he had wanted to express had been replaced with mind-boggling curiosity.
“I just came from fishing” was all I said. I was dressed in rubber boots, blue jean overalls and a light blue cotton shirt. I had on my favorite fishing jacket that smelled of worms, Mississippi backwater, and fish guts. There was the tantalizing aroma which was caught by the breeze bringing the smell to your nose of the scent of a campfire of maplewood smoke which rose and was caught in the wind and intertwined itself into every fiber of the jacket. Then there was the smell of fried fish in bacon drippings, which clung to the jacket like memories of a lost lover, delightful and sweet. Slung over my shoulder was my tackle box, bait container, and fishing creel. My fishing rod was strapped to my back similar to a hunter’s rifle, ready for use at second’s notice. My old straw hat was covered with my most indispensable and favorite fishing flies and lures just waiting to be put to use to help me catch and outwit the elusive creatures of the dark black bayous of Mississippi. Yet they are the best eating fish a person could ever place their lips around to taste, the catfish.
The old man’s eyes danced with merriment and joy as he cast loving glances at my fishing equipment then they quickly clouded with inward turmoil, looking down and head bowed he asked tentatively. “How is the fishing after the flood? Any of those critters biting, or are there any left to catch after the Mississippi got done with them? You know it’s a real pleasure to pursue fishing in the waters of a bayou. It offers a soft silence, and solitude helps a man to think.” He finished wistfully, the lighthearted tones of endearment for the sport danced in and out of the words as he spoke. He glanced up quickly to check how the forwardness of his questions had been taken.
I could tell he was a fan of the activity himself. I swelled my chest up with pride, for here was a fellow fisherman. Well. it wasn't too bad,” I lingered over each phrase, contemplating my next statement. “Although the terrain in the bayous has changed considerable since the flood, an experienced person can still find their way around a good fishing hole. As for the survival of those wily bottom feeding catfish, they just found a deep hole behind a jetty of land and waited the flood out.” If there had been other white folk around they would have stood aghast and horrified at my attempts at treating a colored man with any sense of dignity. They would have reminded me “we don’t want them to get a sense of their selves let alone gain any pride, hell they just might get an uppity attitude and then we would just have to come around and correct it by what ever means it takes.”
The old caretaker cackled with laughter and the his body relaxed, his eves still darted about anxiously as the conversation continued, “Yes sir, ain’t nothing smarter in the water than a catfish.” He seemed to have a renewed respect for me. "Here, let me show you where James is at,” he offered, anxious to please. He jumped and scampered into action, wobbling from side to side, reminding me of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. A person could count the seconds off with certain accuracy in time with the to and fro motion of his movements. “He’s over this way;” the caretaker motioned me to follow him. He scurried across the ground the way a squirrel with a nut on a mission would to hide his spoils. His mouth moved just as quickly, telling me as he went however, since the flood there had just been no time for him to venture out into backwater country to check out the condition of his favorite fishing spots. The caretaker’s eyes moved ahead to find a place for his next footstep to land without the chance of slipping and sliding. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come to know James?” he asked slowly with calculated purpose of his well-chosen words.
I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, being white and all and I didn’t want to give an answer which might hint at impropriety. Hesitation laced my response. “We fished the same secret fishing hole in Notches Bayou.”
The caretaker shook his head, his body tensed with an inward struggle.
I nodded my head with understanding, “you know I wonder what people will think if I am caught having a conversation with a Negro. I bet you those colored folks standing around and watching us are wondering the same thing since it ain’t the accepted thing to be doing. So you just go ahead and ask me what you want and you can just tell them I’m touched with the fever, fishing fever to be more precise.” The old caretaker swayed back and forth over considering the decision to continue the conversation and his eyes moved continually, darting to each small group of Negroes in the cemetery, weighing their possible responses in his mind before he spoke. "Well, that use to be a real dangerous place to go fishing in, with all those hidden whisky stills and the northern revenuers going around trying to find them in that bayou. Locals are real protective of their secrets in those parts. Whisky Runnin’Fred had his operations in Notches, ever run into him?”
I smiled and chuckled lightly moving my eyes from group to group. I knew that we both were the subject of keen observation, I for being white in a most unusual place to have a white person in and the caretaker for being in a conversation with a white person. Life in the south was a life of continuous paranoia for both white men and Negro. White men always keeping the Negro in their place and always and constantly reminding them of it. With looks of hatred plastered upon the faces and sneers of disgust upon their lips and torrents of soul-shattering explanations of the lowly character the Negro possesses. It was a process of undeclared war of genocide upon the soul of a different color population. The Negroes banned together for their very survival in a hostile world of white control: bent over with dignity not to offend a white, for their very life depended upon it. They stood united in their attempts not to give any white man the pleasure of seeing a reaction of defiance or pain. It was their survival plan. The white society could take everything and prevent them feeling like a human but they could not take their code of dignified silence.
“Oh yeah, Fred was slick as they come, the Feds were always way behind Fred in trying to track down his still. Those highfalutin revenuers could never outwit a good OLE Mississippi lad born and bred in bayou country.” The memories of the days at the fishing hole with James came rushing in, flooding my mind the same way in which the Mississippi broke through the levee and flooded the land.
The path the caretaker had walked dawn was slippery with mud. There were piles of turned soil marking those who had recently been buried. Suddenly the caretaker stopped and pointed to a well-tamped pile of dirt sporting tiny blades of grass having just broken through the soil’s surface. A small white wooden marker placed near the path held James’ name written in red. “Here he is.” He walked up and brushed off the layer of debris that had collected on the face of the marker. “Anything more I can help you with. sir?” the old caretaker offered. “No, and I thank you for the effort and your time,” I said, as I offered him my hand to shake. The occasion turned solemn as the loss of James Gotten hit me full force as a hurricane hits land with the strength and fury contained within its winds.
The caretaker muttered, explaining his action, “The least I could do for a good man,” cleaning off the weather on his name plate, “and it weren't no bother showing you to his grave, sir.” He grabbed my hand, shook it once and turned wobbling away down the path we had just come as a small group of stern face Negroes made their way to intercept the path of the caretaker.
I was left alone with my memories of James, and how it all began. I had been away from Greenville for about five years serving with the army. Everyday away I dreamed of coming home and fishing the secret hole I found a couple of years before. I remembered those times of solitude which fishing offered with such homesickness. No one in my unit could understand the sanctity of the experience, of what it was like to be in deep water by yourself with nature alive on all sides of you. You can’t explain the adventures one has while fishing for catfish. It’s something you live, and can’t share it. It’s impossible to relate it to others for them to understand. James was there and he understood. The moonbeams streaming on the black water at night, light from the flickering fire, dancing, inviting one to warm themselves by its side and offering the protection of the light it cast. The bullfrogs would croak and splash with such a well-timed pattern a person could consider the noise a serenade of vocals to the night, while the crickets were the musicians keeping time. Then there were the kerplunks in the night and splashing of the fish coming to the surface of the water. They would feed on the skittle bugs that skidded across the waters’ surface and the more adventuresome fish would jump to capture a firefly in their mouths for dinner. Yes, those were times a man could be alone with his thoughts, away from the complications of life in the South. I was looking forward to the returning to my oasis in the bayou: however, when I arrived there, to my surprise was this tall bent over figure of an older black man sitting on a stump with fishing pole clasped in hand. This was my first view of James Gotten
I telegraphed my disgust of having another being at my fishing hole by the exaggerated movement of my body as I tramped and stomped up the path. The noise the paraphernalia attached to my body made was deafening, at least to me. since I was within its mists. I had come well prepared for a few weeks stay: I had a tent, camping gear, and the latest and finest fishing implements. I rattled and rocked, clinging and clanging as I made my way to the jetty of land that stuck out into the waters. My straw hat was new and full of the brightest and fanciest fishing fineries a sportsman whom I considered myself to he would have. James looked me up and down and smiled. He propped his wooden rod on the backside of the stump and walked up to me. “You sure are noisy for a white man,” he said slowly with an implied cockiness.
I glared at him but I had been in the service and had learned to see actually the Negro as a person. But this Negro was very different from the respectful, demure, and docile Negroes I had come in contact with. He was dressed in a worn coat, thread bare at the elbows, pockets torn or missing. an old hat, perhaps white or some other light color indistinguishable by the years and layers of dirt placed upon it. He offered his hand to shake, brown like strong coffee, callused and dry. I took his hand and shook it. “My name is James and let me help you with that load.” He grabbed the back of the pack I had and eased it to the ground. He motioned his head over to the left and my eyes followed in that direction. I noticed a small camp setup. "There's coffee in the pot, help yourself, cups are by the fire, and I caught enough fish for supper.” He walked back to his pole, picked it up and sat down on the stump. “All I ask is you keep the racket down, I heard you for the last hour coming this way. So if I know you’re here, so do the fish.”
I was offended. I bent over and started unpacking my supplies, and I unrolled the tent, pulled out the instructions and tried to follow the illustrations. Just as soon as I would get one corner secured, I either tripped over the tethering spikes or the rope would come undone. I was soon at my wits end: suddenly there were dark hands on the end of the rope helping me make sense of the chaos I had caused. Calm and steady. James worked without a word. He helped set the poles. drive the stakes, unpack and set up my camp. He walked over and picked up two blue enamel cups, which were badly chipped. He poured coffee into the cups and offered one to me. I gratefully took it; maybe the jolt of coffee would untangle my brain as to what to do next in the art of fishing I so enjoyed. Ambling over to the stump, he pulled in a line, and a mighty fine passel of catfish appeared from beneath the surface of the water. He set about gutting and cleaning the fish at the edge of the water. Soon he had an old black iron skillet placed on the fire and the unmistakable smell of bacon drippings were being smelled and fish sizzling to a toasted golden brown and potatoes with onions frying in another pan on the fire.
I was busy with my pole trying to rig it so that I could show this colored man what the art of fishing was really about, to show this presumptuous colored man who the real sportsman was. I was shocked when James handed me a plate and said kindly “Son, you needs to rest after that long walk in: the fish have stop biting for the day, we’ll both get an early start tomorrow morning. I will wake you early.” In all the turmoil of emotion and the heat of competition with this colored man to which I was the only one participating, I had not even thought about supper.
The meal was as fine as they come. He took my plate when I was finished and stacked more onto it. “You’re going to need your strength out here fishing for those catfish.” He laughed. “You’re just a might rusty at the chore of it, but you’ll soon regain your know-how, it’ll come back, sneak up on you like a weasel on a chicken. Then you’ll wonder how you even doubted yourself.” James had just expressed the doubt I was feeling. He bent down, offered me the plate full of food. "Tomorrow you cook,” was all he said.
I stood up, wiped off my hand on my pants and offered it to James. "Hi,. my name is Ted Jinks, but everyone calls me High Jinks. But I prefer Ted if you don't mind.” I felt a little squeamish about the pet name that I had been labeled with since I was a youngster. James never paid any attention to the reference.
James took my hand and shook it and said with authority, “It’s nice to meet you, Ted.” He brought out a fiddle and started playing. As much as I tried to be annoyed at this black man, his easy way and wide smile started to win me over. He set his fiddle aside and told me of the reason he kept coming back to this spot to fish. Out there about 25 feet was a huge rotting trunk of a tree. Right below where the roots dove into the water was where old rascal lived. In his consideration, he was the smartest catfish that ever lived. He told how he had been trying to catch that fish the last four years; it seemed everything he tried to catch that fish ended in failure. James felt that he was outsmarted, or maybe it was just the hand of fate interfering, but he never realized his goal of having OLE’ Rascal in the fry pan. James picked up his fiddle again and proceeded to fill the evening air with music.
I was intrigued, it was the beginning, and we spent over four weeks on that jetty fishing and talking. and enjoying each other’s company as men. We never spoke of the issues that parted our ways when our time in the bayou was over. It just never seemed necessary. James said god don’t use a person’s color to tell us apart, he does that by seeing what’s in our heart. Only man himself uses the color of a man’s skin to determine a man’s soul and fate in life, so we agreed to follow god’s rule. We talked about our families, our childhood in Greenville, farming. and of course the passion we shared, fishing. We laughed and told stories and jokes. I reminisced about my days in the service. We even witnessed Whiskey Runnin' Fred playing with the revenuers hot on his trail We could hear the howling of their hounds and the brush crashing around the passel of men calling themselves the law moving through the bayou. Fred came walking knee deep in the water with a short piece of small copper pipe clenched in his hand. As the Feds came closer, Fred knelt down in the water, placed the pipe into his mouth and he lay down, disappearing under the surface. The top of the pipe just broke the surface of the water; it was from this opening that Fred breathed the air he needed. James and I just sat and watched the commotion, as the Feds appeared through the brush. They signaled us asking if we had seen anyone pass this way. We both shook out heads. The feds made their way deeper into the bayou, while Fred waited just underneath the surface of the water. He stood up when he thought the danger had passed, wet from head to toe. He waved at us and disappeared in the opposite direction to find his still. James and I had a good laugh over that occurrence.
On the last day he said he was coming back in about three months. I nodded: I told him funny thing I was coming back fishing about that same time. Before we started our trek back to southern life, James pulled out both our strings of fish and equaled them out. He made sure I had enough to feed my family, he would only take home with him four or five. Just enough, he would say, to appease his hunger for fish until the next time he could get away to go fishing. However, I insisted he took what was fair, afterall I pointed out he must know other’s who like the good taste of a fish. That was the beginning of five years of fishing together, not seeing each other by the color of our skin but by our love of fishing that spot in the bayou and the appreciation of each other as humans. It was a dangerous course of action we pursued...this communing with an opposite. But here in the lonely solitude of the bayou and away from constant implied manner in which to act toward one another and the approving or disapproving stare of our own, we could be more ourselves. We did not have to construct our images and actions toward each other by preconceived patterns of thoughts and pre-established images like the effigies the Klan would construct and burn except we burned our images with the emotions of distrust and hatred toward each other.
A tear stung my eyes as I remembered those days; I reached down and pinched a piece of mud from the mound on his grave. I rubbed the soil between my fingers; the dark color of the wet earth stained my flesh a dark brown, just like the color of James’ skin. Again I found myself wandering in memories of James, how this confident self-reliant black man pulled out a tattered and dog-eared envelope, and for the first time was unsure. He handed the letter to me; it was yellowed with age. "I can’t read. The letter, I think, is from my daughter up north. Would you consider reading the letter to me?”
I read the letter to him. James sat gazing in the direction of the setting moon. After I had finished reading, he thanked me, folded the letter back into its well-worn creases. and placed it back into the envelope and back into a hidden pocket of his coat. I offered to write for him to his daughter, but he declined. It was enough that I was kind enough to read the letter to him. Besides, he insisted if he contacted his daughter, she would want him to come and stay up North, which he would never be able to do because he had the dark muddy waters of the Mississippi running through his veins.
We met and fished on that jetty for four more years. each time the time ended and we made our way to the civilized world of the South. I could see James’ shoulders start to slump and curve as the burden of who he was weighed down on him. I could feel the separation too with each step that we came closer to Greenville and by the time our paths would part, it was as if we were a polite but distant white man and a lowly Negro, not the good fishing buddies we were in the shadows of the trees deep in the bayou dividing up the spoils of our venture. Not two men sharing the common grounds of life they shared. Not the shared experiences of being father, son, husband and men. We were thrown back into a reality of division of being accepted back into our differing roles of white and black and the immense toll of denial at what our roles cost each other and ourselves.
Then came the flood and everything changed. The blacks were gathered up and forced to stay in the relief camps. They were watched over by the National Guard so none of them could slip away and go up North; the wealthy landowners were afraid of losing their cheap labor pool of black sharecroppers. They were forced to labor long hours without pay. I was moving relief supplies when I saw James working on the levy. He was bent over and a solider from the National Guard was overseeing the work performed by the group of Negroes. I first recognized him by his movements. They were tired and slow. He stood up, moved his head, and caught sight of me. I dipped paddles of the boat into the water and pulled. I could see his face which was strained, his eyes were vacant and blank. He reminded me of a dead animal, eyes dark and flat with out change. He was looking at the world through eyes that could no longer see it. I wanted to shout at him “glad to see you’re not fish food.” I wanted to jump out of the boat right then and grab that darkie in my arms and jump and dance around with jubilance and joy, letting him know just how much I was glad to see him and that he was still alive. I wanted to grab his bandaged hands and shake them until he begged me to stop. I wanted to make arrangements right there in front of everyone of when we would go fishing next. What I wanted to do was control what I couldn't. I sank the oars deep into the water. James stopped and watched me. I pulled hard on the oars and they propelled the small boat ahead like a bullet. James stood there quiet and still, a large vanilla colored laundry tag attached to his shirt twirling crazily in the breeze. Again I pulled the oars. I saw the soldier approach James and nudge him with the butt of his rifle and motion his hand toward the shovel James was holding. Still he stood and watched, while I moved off in my boat putting more and more distance between us. The last time I saw James the soldier hit him with the tip of his rifle. James then bent over and started shoveling wet sloppy mud. That day was the first time I was ashamed being white. I could move freely about and yet a man who was by far the best friend I had ever come to know was treated like a slave. Slaves whom on paper had been freed fifty years prior. The Negro was still kept enslaved by the white correctives of a white person‘s action. I just was guilty of the crime of not seeing it because of my privilege. Not giving the Negro a name or a face, they were faceless to me, they never had families. They never worried over and about children, they never wanted better conditions, for I denied their right to being human by not seeing them as beings of worth. I was caught in my own white blindness, which was never so apparent as when my boat moved away from the standing man who was black. The next I heard about James he had been killed by a new young police officer out of Vicksburg. He was full of Jim Crow ways and bad attitude. I heard tell James had worked sixteen hours on the levy and was resting on the porch of his small house when the officer approached. The officer insisted that James return to work on the levee and James refused stating that he had worked all day and needed to rest because he was tired. Words turned into threats from the officer. The officer's white temper raged, gunfire ensued, and James ended up dead, shot through the vanilla tag he was forced to wear so he could be kept track of by the national guard.
I set the creel down on the ground, beside the grave of James. I lifted the lid and took out the fish wrapped in newspapers and gently laid them on top of his mound. They were his equal share of the fish I had spent the week catching. It had been six months since I had been back to the bayou. “I don’t think I’ll be going back James, it’s just not the same without you,” I said sadly to the body underneath the mound. I knelt down in prayer, asking God to watch over my good fishing buddy. I got up. brushed off the mud from the knees of my pants, picked up my creel and started back home to finish the letter I had started writing to James daughter up North.
Death is the great equalizer, for in death we are all equal.
David H. Kessel