Live and Learn
George Dawson spent his youth working on farms, only learning to read when he was 98. Now 102, heÍs written a memoir. Its title: Life Is So Good.
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The only student in the adult-education class not puzzled by the question was George Dawson, who would celebrate his 102nd birthday in about a month. The question was, What famous monument in Washington, D.C., is closed for renovation? The teacher, Carl Henry, dropped a hint: It’s named for America’s first president. One student guessed Lincoln. Another ventured Clinton. Dawson looked around the room at the other students, mostly black like himself and all far younger, and smiled at the confusion. He didn’t necessarily know the correct answer either, but he understood from decades of observation the source of their puzzlement: There are two Americas.
The gravity of this observation permeates the pages of George Dawson’s memoir, Life Is So Good, which will be published by Random House this month. That’s right. Dawson, who didn’t learn to read and write until he was 98, is now a celebrated author. He has appeared on Oprah (and is scheduled to appear on Good Morning America this month), and he has been interviewed by Dan Rather. He’s been given the VIP tour at NASA and invited to watch a game from a luxury suite at the Ballpark in Arlington. The schools of Dallas, public and private, compete for the privilege of hearing his secret of longevity. “Ain’t no secret,” he tells them, adding, “All I’m doing is going to school, to get what y’all don’t want.”
His fellow students in the adult-education class fawn over Dawson as they would a mascot but are bewildered by his generation’s benign submission to white power. When Dawson related an event from the twenties—the time eighteen members of his baseball team lined up to drink from the colored fountain while the white fountain next to it sat vacant—they shook their heads and rolled their eyes. “Woooee!,” exclaimed a pretty young woman named Deborah. “We’d be in the white man’s face sooo fast!”
A short, compact man with gray cottony hair and inquisitive eyes, Dawson is fragile but blessed with the constitution of a mule. He walks without a cane, has his own teeth, and though he has a pair of reading glasses, he doesn’t like to wear them. Since his fourth wife died twelve years ago, he has lived alone in his small cottage near Lincoln High School in South Dallas. All seven of his children graduated from Lincoln, and three went on to college. He stopped driving just after his hundredth birthday—with all the celebrating, he forgot to renew his license—and depends on a son, George Junior, and his teacher, Carl Henry, for rides. Dawson isn’t comfortable with his celebrity status (“I’m nobody special,” he assured me). It distracts him from his primary mission of getting his GED. He hasn’t missed a class since he began going to school three years ago.
Dawson grew up in a dirt-floor cabin in Marshall, listening to his grandmother Charity and his great-grandmother Sylvie talk about their days as slaves in Mississippi. Life in the Dawson family was unrelentingly hard. Even as a young boy, Dawson was expected to comb cotton while Sylvie made thread with her drop spindle. “George, I know you’re tired,” Charity would tell him. “But President Lincoln, he didn’t free us to be lazy and no good.” Sylvie and Charity spoke of that great day when Master Lester called the slaves out of the fields to tell them the Confederacy had lost the war. Charity, a teenager at the time, remembered feeling “a little sad when I heard him say we lost.” Sylvie reminded her, “We had nothing to lose, daughter. It wasn’t our war.” Though nobody in his family could read or write, Dawson was already on the trail of a great truth: History is written by and for winners.
For every day of the twentieth century, Dawson followed the advice of his great-grandmother, as well as that of his father, who warned, “There’s white folks and there’s colored folks. They weren’t meant to mix together, and when they do, there will be trouble.” Harrison Dawson was three when his family left Master Lester’s plantation, ten years after the war ended: It took that long to pay off their “debt” to Lester’s store. They walked west from Mississippi until they reached Marshall, where a new lumber mill offered work. They redeemed the government’s promise of forty acres and a mule and began to scratch out a living. Dawson learned from his father that white people expected coloreds to talk to them as they would to a boss or a superior. He remembers that when blacks talked to whites, “It wasn’t unfriendly, but wasn’t warm, like the talk between two coloreds. I don’t think [white folks] even knew we had two ways of talking.”
At age eight he began working full-time on the farm of a white neighbor for $1.50 a week, a sacrifice that allowed his seven brothers and sisters to attend Marshall’s new colored school. When he was twelve, he was sent to live and work on a farm some distance from his family. From sunrise to sunset he did manual labor, and at night he went to his shed, unrolled his blanket, and cried himself to sleep, listening to the howl of coyotes and thinking about his mama’s biscuits and the warm bed he had once shared with his siblings.
Over the years, George Dawson picked cotton, cut cane, and plowed fields in Texas; helped build a levee along the Mississippi River in Tennessee; unloaded cargoes of coconuts in New Orleans and, during Prohibition, barges of illicit booze in St. Louis; worked on a coffee plantation in the jungles of Mexico; and broke horses all over the Midwest. He lived in hobo camps, in boxcars, and under boardwalks and laid rails and rode them from Cincinnati to Canada to California, all the while turning the other cheek when he was insulted or humiliated by white folks who “just didn’t know any better.” Always a good Christian, he resisted the temptations of crap games, women, and booze—with the notable exception of his sojourn in New Orleans. He had signed aboard a ship bound for India, where a great-great-grandmother had lived, but got so busy partying that the boat sailed without him. “I found New Orleans just like the preacher warned against,” he says in the book. “It was great.”
Richard Glaubman, the co-author of Life Is So Good, first learned of George Dawson in a newspaper article reprinted from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. An elementary school teacher on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Glaubman was intrigued by the story and thought it might make a good children’s book. “I went down to visit him, thinking this was a story about overcoming hardship and suffering,” Glaubman says. “After a few hours everything changed. I was struck by how much he remembered and, more than that, by his attitude toward life.” Dawson wasn’t all that sure he wanted to deal with a white man. Nevertheless, he permitted Glaubman to move into his home. Between trips back to Washington, Glaubman shared the cooking and household duties and taught Dawson about the world he’d missed; Dawson taught Glaubman about chitlins, fishing, patience, and humility. When Glaubman finally sat down to write, he automatically typed Dawson’s favorite expression across the top of the first page: “Life is so good.”
To fill in the gaps, Glaubman showed Dawson old newspapers and magazines documenting periods that he had lived through but couldn’t read about until now, then solicited the old man’s reaction. This device teaches us more about ourselves than it does about Dawson, and some of the revelations hit like an ice pick in the heart. Did Dawson remember the Scopes trial, labeled the “Trial of the Century” in 1925? It was in all the papers, but of course he couldn’t read the papers. And even if he could, the Scopes trial was “white news… it wasn’t part of the America I knew… the only [trials] that colored folks noticed were when a colored man went on trial for raping a white woman.” How about the Great Depression? Dawson didn’t know much about any depression, only that white people believed that times were tough. “For the colored folks,” he told Glaubman, “times was already tough and it wasn’t so different than before.” And Jackie Robinson, surely he had heard of the great black athlete who integrated major league baseball? Dawson shook his head at the naiveté of the question: “I guess [Glaubman] doesn’t know that there ain’t no black man in America that was alive then would ever forget Jackie Robinson.” Dawson was a pretty good ballplayer himself in the twenties, as was his brother Johnny. He has often wondered if they could have made it to the majors.
Dawson didn’t march with Martin Luther King, Jr., but he remembers his own personal protest. It happened one hot summer day in the late sixties, not long after he had retired from 25 years as a handyman for Oak Farm Dairies. Retirement didn’t mean Dawson could rest. He did yard work and gardening for rich housewives who competed for the best rose garden in Dallas. Most of them seemed decent enough, furnishing him with pitchers of ice water and inviting him into their kitchen for lunch. But one particular matron seemed to regard him as another tool to be used and stored in the garage. He had to drink out of the hose, and when the noon hour arrived, she was nowhere in sight. Eventually she appeared—to feed her dogs. A few minutes later she brought Dawson a bowl of stew and a biscuit, setting them on a porch shelf out of the dogs’ reach. “She expected I would eat out on the porch with her dogs,” Dawson tells us. “But something told me, ‘George, don’t go up on that porch. You must keep your pride.’” He worked all afternoon on an empty stomach, getting hungrier and weaker but dead set against surrender. When she discovered the uneaten stew at the end of the day, the woman angrily scolded him for wasting “perfectly good food.” Dawson replied that he didn’t eat with dogs. “I eat with people,” he told her. “I am a human being.” Her face tightened, he recalls, and changed to meanness and anger. “From her mother and father and back through her grandparents, I could sense a hundred years of anger and fear coming out toward me.” The woman told Dawson not to come back again.
One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Glaubman takes Dawson back to Marshall to visit the local newspaper. Growing up, Dawson had learned the news by listening. “In those days,” he says, “it seems like everything had two stories, the white story and the colored story.” In the reference room of the Marshall newspaper, they searched without success for a mention of the lynching of Dawson’s boyhood friend Pete Spillman. Dawson and his father had come to town to sell some cane syrup the day the mob turned on the seventeen-year-old black kid, falsely accused of impregnating a white girl. When they dragged Spillman onto a buckboard and looped the noose around his neck, Dawson buried his head against his father’s chest. Only when he heard the snap of the whip and the lurch of the buckboard did he look back. “Pete’s neck broke instantly; his head rested at an awkward angle,” Dawson tells us. “His eyes were open and he looked out at everyone.”
At the time of his visit to the newspaper, Dawson still wondered why he had lived so long—and why, against his father’s warning, he had trusted a white man to write his story. Suddenly he knew. “I guess I am the only man alive that knows the truth about Pete Spillman,” he told Glaubman. “I am a witness to the truth.”