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