Life Is So Good by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman (Penguin, 2001)
George Dawson was born in 1898, and died in 2001. The 20th century was his in a way very few others can claim, and to read his story is to see the history of that momentous century from the inside, and to realize how much more important character and attitude are than any external circumstances.
George Dawson grew up hearing first-hand stories of slavery from his grandmother and great-grandmother. As a ten-year-old, he watched his older friend, Pete, be lynched for a crime George knew he did not commit.
"I will never work for or talk to a white person again," I said with anger.
My father, who had seemed lost in his own thoughts, jerked his head and looked at me.
"That was wrong what they did," I said. "Those white folks are mean and nasty people."
Papa swallowed hard and pulled up on the reins so that the wagon stopped.
He turned toward me. "No. You will work for white folks. You will talk to them."
"But, Papa, what about Pete? He didn't do nothing and they killed him."
"Yeah, I know they had no cause for that, but-"
I cut my father off short, something I had never done.
"But they made Pete suffer so."
"His suffering is over, son. It's all over for Pete. You don't need to worry for him."
"They took his life. Pete was still young. He should of grown to be a man."
"That's so," Papa said. "It was Pete's time, though. His time had come and that's that."
My anger still had some hold on me and I swallowed hard.
Papa looked at me and said, "Some of those white folks was mean and nasty. Some were just scared. It doesn't matter. You have no right to judge another human being. Don't you ever forget."
My father had spoken.
There was nothing to say. I didn't know it then, but his words set the direction my life would take even till this day.
Dawson's work life began when he was four, combing cotton for his family. By eight, he was working for other farmers, and doing "a man's work" by ten. He retired at 79, and finally learned to read at 98. In the meantime, his hard work, his determination to do the right thing—at which he mostly, though not entirely, succeeded—and his positive attitude took him far from his native Texas. Those were the days when a strong body and a good work ethic could get you a job and a place to sleep, and "homeless" was not a diagnosis. But he always returned home to Texas, even after a stint in Mexico where he discovered the pleasures of being considered a man, rather than a "colored boy."
There were a couple of cafes that I stopped in, not so much 'cause I was hungry but because they would serve me. I knew I was in another country when I could walk through the front door and where I sat could be my own choice. I liked that. Life was good, but I was too used to working, and after a week I caught the train back to Texas.
Like hardship and injustice themselves, it's easy for books about hardship and injustice to wallow in darkness and lead only to depression. Life Is So Good is remarkable, and well worth reading, for being able to report the darkness faithfully while infusing it with light.
Life is so good. I do believe it's getting better. — George Dawson
Note: There are a few places where the book is not appropriate for an eight-year-old, but Jonathan is not far from being able to learn much from reading it, and given that he liked God's Smuggler, it's clearly not beyond him.