A Biscuit for Your Shoe
by Beatrice Upshaw
College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2020.
288 pp. $21.95 hardcover.
I believe community to be a crucial part in shaping an individual's life, from the people you come across, and the memories you create with them. Beatrice Upshaw portrays exactly that in her memoir— A Biscuit for Your Shoe: A Memoir of County Line, a Texas Freedom Colony. Upshaw found the most important people in her life where within the little community that inhabited County Line. You may be wondering where exactly is County Line? Well, County Line is a freedom colony in East Texas founded by Jim and Laura Upshaw. Freedom colonies were created by African American landowners after the Emancipation in 1865. They were anomalies after the war within the South.
A community built from the ground up by those who had been enslaved, a self-contained community that brought up generations of children, and a community that was like family. Upshaw writes, “The fact that our ancestors were able to establish and build a church fresh out of slavery and that we are able to maintain and improve it is a tribute to them, not us. We are what we are because of what they were made of.” Upshaw reiterates throughout how solid the community in County Line is with a friend at every corner you turn; a place where everyone counts upon one another.
Upshaw evokes an idea of life in County Line, with her descriptive imagery. I felt as though I was playing alongside Sister Girl, Bryd, and Faye, the scene where Sister Girl’s skirt tears apart (an act of revenge done by Bryd and Faye) while walking back home from Aunt Odessa’s and Uncle Floyd’s—“The miscreants ran so fast that they arrived home a full three minutes before Sister Girl came lumbering over the hill screaming and crying, claiming that the “haints” had tried to get her. She managed to hang onto the candy though.” I chuckled as I read this scene; able to imagine how silly Sister Girl must have looked running down the street with her skirt falling apart and holding onto the box of candy Uncle Floyd had given to the trio.
Beatrice Upshaw gives readers a glimpse into the small town and the people who live there. She provides photos of almost everyone she introduces within the memoir, showing readers the faces behind the stories, and even revealing the first church (and only church for years) in County Line. This is the church Beatrice references that her ancestors had built after slavery right after they had bought the land, the heart of the town—County Line Baptist Church. The church is also the reason why a biscuit is needed for one’s shoe. You have probably been wondering why anyone would need a biscuit for a shoe, well, Beatrice Upshaw recalls having to use a biscuit to clean her leather shoes every Sunday for church. The idea of the church being the center of County Line and also the idea behind Upshaw’s title should inform readers just how important the church was not only for Upshaw, but also her community. Upshaw shares just how deep the roots of church go for African Americans and how it is a symbolism of unity when she writes, “every Black person in America has roots in the church. For some of us those roots extend way down, to China, maybe. Others have roots, but they are so shallow they are visible after a hard storm (of the literal and figurative variety). In any case, the roots are there. The church has been the most powerful force for the union of our people.”
The author also introduces the tasks that one must do within the church, like the church minutes. The church minutes are recorded notes and times that went on during that day at church. At County Line Baptist Church they used school notebooks, and every Sunday the minutes are written in the notebook, by anyone who was an attendee, even the children recorded the church minutes. Although I do appreciate Upshaw including these church minutes (and keeping them as close to the original, besides small edits for comprehension purposes) I do wish she would have included a photocopy of the recordings. I feel as though since Upshaw included those beautiful photos of the residents of County Line, it would have been nice to stick to that authenticity and see how the actual recordings looked, no edits, no typing.
Upshaw’s writing is sometimes cluttered and the chapters are so similar that I sometimes got confused on what I was reading. Though I do enjoy the topics of community and the inevitable change that no one is safe from in A Biscuit for Your Shoe, there were familiar, repetitive moments throughout, for instances Uncle Claud’s store is mentioned as being the source of entertainment for the town in a few pages throughout the book, “Rather the store was the place to be on a Saturday. Community residents hung out at the store morning, noon, and night.”
I found this memoir to be heart-warming. A Biscuit for Your Shoe is not like other memoirs I have read by female authors. Unlike, Roxanne Gay’s Hunger. Upshaw brings forth to readers a memoir with a political and emotional stand. Sharing joyous memories of the small, family-like community County Line, a small town full of deep history and residents that felt like family to Upshaw. Upshaw, shares all the feel-good memories from her childhood and is also clear to point out that not all memories of County Line were happy, she even shares these stories. One story she share is when Gus was thrown off the wooden rocking horse, blood covered the floor, and Beatrice and the others were worried for their brother (he just injured his “testes” as Leota says). Or in that same chapter, when Pete got a lesson on greed and excess, after taking a dozen Anacin and getting caught in Uncle Floyd’s barbed-wire fence because he was running from the room. Despite the struggle Beatrice Upshaw and a majority of the residents in the community experienced they were appreciative of one thing for sure, and that was each other. Upshaw does ask her readers one important question in the Epilogue, “Do we move with the flow of inevitable events, or do we hang onto the solid, anchoring boulders of the past?” She advises readers to “embrace the necessary” and that it is “necessary to embrace the future,” reminding us all to embrace it all and to be appreciative of the now.
Sierra Rodriguez is a graduate student at Texas State University.