Add author George Dawson (1898 – 2001) to the list of authors whose books have been banned. I’ve added him to my list of People of Hope. Banning books has never turned out well for those who toss other people’s works into the fire or remove them from schools and libraries. Trying to stop people from learning history by banning books is about as productive as trying to drain the ocean by pouring buckets of water on the sand. This week I learned that a school in Southlake, TX banned a book written by the man for whom the school is named. Since my first call as a newly ordained pastor was to a congregation in the adjacent community of Grapevine, the story caught my attention.
After reading about George Dawson I decided to lift him up as one of my People of Hope. He is a wonderful example of someone who had more than ample reason to be bitter, vengeful and discouraged. But he wasn’t. Instead, he focused on doing whatever work it took to support himself and his family, never giving up learning. He learned to read when he was 98 years old, earning him the reputation as “America’s favorite poster child for literacy.” With the help of a teacher he co-authored his autobiography Life Is So Good in 2000, shortly before he died. This is the book that the school that was named after him decided to ban for its honesty in describing what he lived through.
Meet George Dawson
Dawson was the grandson and great-grandson of enslaved women in Mississippi. He was born in a cabin near Marshall, TX. His ancestors were freed after the Civil War but had to stay on the plantation until they worked off their debt to their former enslaver’s store. Dawson’s father, three at the time, moved with his family to Marshall where there discovered a lumber mill where they found work. The family got to Marshall on foot, and there received their promised forty acres and a mule.
He was the oldest of eight children and started helping the family at age four by combing cotton for his great-grandmother to spin into thread. At age eight he started feeding the neighboring farmer’s livestock. At age twelve he left home to work on a white man’s farm, sending his wages home to support the family.
A Working Man
When Dawson turned twenty-one he began following jobs around the country, picking cotton, cutting sugar cane, and working on railroads from Cincinnati to Canada to California. He also broke horses throughout the Midwest, worked on coffee plantations in Mexico, loaded barge cargo, and eventually settled in Dallas. There he worked on the railroad and the city doing road work until he went to work at Oak Farms Dairy where he ran machinery for twenty-five years. When he retired from that job he continued working doing yard work. He was married four times and widowed twice. He was a father to seven children.
With his busy life, he never had a chance to learn how to read or write. That changed in 1996 when a volunteer from the Dallas area Lincoln Instructional Center stopped by his home in Dallas. He accepted the invitation to start adult education classes there since he lived close to the Center. Thus, at the age of 98, he finally learned how to read and write.
From Laborer to Literature
He rapidly progressed through learning the alphabet to printing words to writing in cursive and signing his name for the first time. Two years later he was reading at a third-grade level. His example motivated others to attend literacy classes, doubling enrollment.
News about his much-later-in-life literacy achievements attracted the attention of numerous publications, including the Associated Press. That is how Richard Glaubman, an elementary school teacher in Washington, learned about Dawson. Glaubman thought Dawson’s story would make a great children’s story and flew to Texas to meet a skeptical Dawson, who initially was reluctant to work with a white man. Eventually, Dawson cooperated with Glaubman, sharing bits and pieces of his life with him. In return, Glaubman shared news articles about major twentieth-century events that Dawson had never read. Dawson even hosted Glaubman on his regular visits to interview him. The children’s version of Dawson’s life never materialized but rather laid the foundation for Life Is So Good.
The Whole Truth
The book includes the trauma Dawson and other blacks endured in the early 1900s when the Ku Klux Clan was active, and lynchings were common. Dawson observed one when he was ten. One of his older friends was lynched after being accused of raping a white girl. Dawson’s father reacted to the lynching by telling Dawson that it is never right to judge another human being. Dawson took his father’s teaching to heart.
Christian Science Monitor editor Ron Charles wrote, “Dawson’s kind and witty attitude is perhaps as valuable as his record of American history, a history largely in the shadows of the ‘important’ events that shook white America.”
Though Dawson experienced racial prejudice in various forms his entire life, he took the high road, doing hard manual labor and joining the world of literate adults.
Theresa McDivvit wrote a review of his book in Library Journal, noting that Dawson “has written a memoir that stands apart from other end-of-the-century texts and from the history generally recorded in textbooks—but is essential to an accurate understanding of this century.”
While researching the Indigenous perspective on the 1620 Mayflower voyage I interviewed descendants of Massasoit Ousa Mequon, the great leader of the Indigenous people in the New England area at the time. The Massasoit responded to the newly arrived starving strangers by initiating a treaty that ensured their survival. Fifty years later, after he died, King Phillip’s War erupted with total casualties, based on the population at the time, exceeding those of the Civil War. Many of the Massasoit’s people were killed in battle or captured and enslaved. Survivors were driven underground, forbidden to practice their traditions, speak their language in public, or use their own name for themselves. One of the people I interviewed summarized the history between his people and my descendants this way, “We can’t undo history. We can learn and do better.”
Dawson never quit learning. Neither should we.
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Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary Brewster
Amazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.