In 1996 a literacy volunteer knocked on 98-year-old Texan George Dawson’s door and told him adult education courses were being taught a few blocks away. Mr. Dawson responded eagerly, “Wait, I’ll get my coat.”
I wrote here about Dawson and posted the famous picture taken at the beginning of his amazing media ride.
Local and national reporters “responded eagerly” themselves to the inspiring story of a new beginning so late in life. A poor son of the Jim Crow era, born on a rocky farm, Dawson was sent away at age 12 because his family needed his wages and wanted one less mouth at the table. His younger siblings went to school, but for George it wasn’t an option.
His life-long yearning to read fueled his determination; he eventually learned to read at a 3rd grade level and continued going to school nearly till his death at 103.
Along the way he acquired a ghostwriter, a Seattle schoolteacher named Richard Glaubman. Their book, “Life Is So Good,” was featured as one of Oprah’s Books and Dawson appeared on Oprah’s show and many others.
Glaubman took him back to Marshall, Texas to look at old newspaper articles. They found nothing, for instance, about the lynching of Dawson’s friend Pete, who had been completely innocent (as events later proved when it was far too late to save his life).
Did all my growing up in Marshall but was always on the outside. I couldn’t read in those days and never even looked at a newspaper. … In those days, it seems like everything had two stories, the white story and the colored story.Dawson decided he had been granted such a long life so he could tell his story:
I started to notice that this paper was not about the Marshall that I knew. All the pictures, at the fire hall, the school yard, the grange, and the rodeo, only had white people in them.
I am a witness to the truth. That’s why I am still here. I can’t let the truth die with me.Thankfully historians attend to humble people more than they used to. Archaeologists even sift through old slave cookfires to see what their unchronicled lives were like. The lives of humble people disappear if nobody writes the stories. For this reason, Dawson’s memories are priceless: surviving on a farm where the only product that could be bartered out was “ribbon syrup,” how to slaughter a hog, the way he and the other members of the Negro baseball league couldn’t find bathrooms they could use, working on the levees, riding the rails… Oprah’s favorite quote from Dawson was: “With children, you got to raise them. Some parents these days are growing children, not raising them.”
In order to enjoy this book you have to accept that Dawson’s authentic voice has not been preserved. It’s a book by Glaubman. Glaubman inserts himself into every chapter as a strong presence, and I frankly do not find him very interesting. I would have preferred an oral history to this gussied-up presentation which begins Chapter One, for example, this way: “Wanting to enjoy every moment, I stared at the hard candies…” Give me a break. If George Dawson began his sentences with gerunds, I’ll eat my hat.