There was a time, not so long ago, when black men and women were lynched on a whim in Texas. When I say "not so long ago," I mean within the span of a lifetime. Granted, in this case, it's a very long lifetime -- that of one George Dawson, a 102-year-old-native Texan -- but still, it lends some frightening perspective that so recently such barbarism was casually accepted. And as a story told by Dawson in his new book Life Is So Good, it also illuminates how far we've come in such a slender slice of time -- or have we? Dawson's book drives a point home: Remembering the past isn't the same as clinging to it out of fear or sentiment. A solid grip on our history is the surest route to clear perspective and, perhaps, a way to avoid repeating mistakes.
Dawson, the grandson of slaves, was born in Marshall in 1898 and now lives in Dallas, and he remembers pretty much every moment of his personal 1900s. The book, published by Random House and co-written with Seattle elementary-school teacher Richard Glaubman, is essentially an oral history as delivered by a good-natured man. Despite its harsh opener -- the detailed description of his childhood friend hanged from a town-square tree for being wrongfully accused of the rape of a white girl -- the book mostly unfolds with languid cheer. Dawson is consistently thankful for his roots and relations, his family and frugal means. If anything, Life Is So Good is a solid biopsy of rural Texas life through the last century, and a welcome addition to that short list.
Dawson will be in attendance at Sunday's African American Read-In at the Majestic Theater, an event studded with local celebrities. Kicking off Black History Month, it focuses on the readings of works by African-American writers, with some music and dancing thrown in for good measure. Granted, Dawson's narrative sometimes veers off into the sludgy territory of Chicken Soup for the Soul and Life's Little Instruction Book; Dawson adores tossing out customized words of cozy wisdom. Still, the overall effect of Life Is So Good is charming, and you can't help but root for a centenarian who looks back on such a rocky history with clear-eyed fondness instead of cynicism. The press release for the book highlights Dawson's adventure with literacy -- he learned to read at age 98 -- but the real gem here is the history. Growing up black in Texas during the 1900s is as good a place as any to get a grip on the storminess of human nature and the will to survive.