As I read George Dawson’s memoir, Life Is So Good (co-authored by Richard Glaubman and published by Random House in 2001), I was stirred by two starkly different things: his enormous pride in learning to read at age 98, and his personal account of the racism so shamefully rampant in America. I am grateful for the chance to tell you about Mr. Dawson’s book, and also about what I have learned from Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the great American educator Eli Siegel, about the beauty of reading and the cause and solution to racism.
It moves me that George Dawson came to know of Aesthetic Realism before he passed away in 2001 at the age of 103. I had sent him the article I wrote about his book, and a few weeks later, in a telephone conversation, he told me that he was grateful to Mr. Siegel for what he explained.
Books: A Way of Knowing the World and People's Feeling
People, young and old, are thrilled by Mr. Dawson’s story: his enthusiasm about reading criticizes the way we can limit ourselves, and makes clear that it’s never too late to learn. “Man’s mind,” wrote Eli Siegel, “was made to know everything.” George Dawson shows how true this is. For instance, he wrote in his memoir:
When a 5th grader asked him “What was the first book that you chose to read on your own?” Mr. Dawson answered, “The Bible.” His favorite passage is from John 1:23: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness."
The beauty of reading and what is affecting George Dawson so much, are explained by Mr. Siegel in his essay “Books” from Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters (Definition Press):
This is what happened as I read Life Is So Good: Mr. Dawson’s feelings mingled with mine in a way that made my mind larger.
Through him we can see America in a new way. His grandparents endured the brutal injustice of slavery in the South. Later, as freed slaves, they worked their way to Texas, where they received forty acres and a mule. George Dawson was born in Marshall, Texas in 1898 in a 3‑room log cabin.
His life of hard work began at age 4 on his parents’ farm, combing cotton and pressing sugar cane; later building levees, working in a sawmill, laying railroad tracks and breaking wild horses. Readers can feel so much—from the pain of segregation, to the wonder of seeing the first airplanes and automobiles, “That Model T was beautiful...polished black with a shiny brass radiator cap”—and his account of reading a book and signing his name for the first time at age 98! “Life is so good,” he said at 100, and “I do believe it’s getting better.”
Some of the most vivid accounts of baseball—the beautiful technique and style of the game—are in his descriptions of playing in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s. And we are also there as he tells of a hair-raising game played against a white team which regarded all pitches to black players as strikes. To make every at-bat count, Dawson’s team came out ready to swing and, despite the racist rules, won the game – which meant they literally had to run for their lives!
Contempt, Feelings, Racism
The existence of books, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, comes from the deepest desire of every person: to know and like the world honestly. But there is another desire which causes every injustice, contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” When we have contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, the last thing we want to do is to see a person’s feelings as real. Once you see someone’s feelings as real as your own, you see a kinship with that person and you won’t want to hurt them.
Unforgettable is George Dawson’s account of the lynching he witnessed at age 10, of his friend Pete Spillman, a youth of 17 falsely accused of raping a white woman. This murder (like thousands of others) went unreported and unpunished, even when the child born to the woman was white. Almost a century later, as Mr. Dawson asks, “Why am I still here?” he answers: “I am the only man alive that knows the truth about Pete Spillman [and] I can’t let the truth die with me.” Most people never experience such horror, and I respect George Dawson enormously for his courageous life-long desire for justice to come to his friend.
I say here simply and with deep gratitude that Aesthetic Realism is the body of knowledge that explains the cause and answer to these horrors. “How can ordinary people, with families, who tuck their children into bed at night, become a lynch mob?” asked Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, in the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1408. What she explains is definitive and should be known by everyone, and certainly by every reader of Life Is So Good. Ms. Reiss writes:
And Ellen Reiss continues: “We won’t understand how persons can take another person and torment and kill him (in the American South; or Germany of the 1940s; or anywhere) until we understand the contempt that is in everyone.”
Aesthetic Realism is the education which can end racism and enable us to have a kind world, because it teaches how to criticize and oppose contempt everywhere, by first seeing how it works in ourselves.
I am everlastingly grateful that my contempt was criticized in Aesthetic Realism lessons taught by Eli Siegel. I learned, for instance, that my hope to feel superior made me prejudiced against my own sister. Because her appearance and disposition were different from mine—Judy was blond, lively and welcoming; I was brunette, serious and aloof (I called it being dignified)—I felt she showed me up. I didn’t see how I tried to show her up by feeling I was deeper and better. I unfairly saw her as against me and was mean to her.
In a lesson Mr. Siegel explained the cause of my pain and what could change it. “The only thing you’ve been troubled by with Judy,” he said, “is that you’ve been mean to her. She is different from you. Lots of people are. Now what are you going to do with people who are different?” And Mr. Siegel continued so kindly “Don’t be kept back by injustice. [Difference] is part of education....You can enjoy using other people to see yourself better, particularly those people who are very different from you.” As I learned that Judy had feelings and hopes like mine—we both wanted to be happy, to be cared for and expressed—I became kinder and had new self-respect. I began to see our differences, and also the differences of others, as interesting, friendly, and adding to me.
The understanding of the fight in everyone between respect and contempt is urgently needed by people of every religion, nationality, and skin color. George Dawson suffered greatly from racism. In his book he tells of struggling with his own prejudice against white people and feeling that they can’t be trusted. He recalls his father saying, “Don’t have no dealings with white people.... Somebody will get hurt.” While this is understandable, and what many African-Americans still feel, I was moved and respected Mr. Dawson for deciding to sign a book contract with his white co-author—something he waited 100 years to be able to do. “I felt so good,” he said. Yet later when he told a reporter, "I don't know whether it will ever get to where one man is the same as another,” I felt he expressed the yearning of humanity for the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism. The solution to racism—the only alternative to contempt—is in this powerful, kind statement by Eli Siegel:
George Dawson can encourage everyone because he shows that a person wanting to know, including through books, can respect himself and have an increasingly happy life. Mr. Dawson’s teacher, Carl Henry, said:
At the age of 103, Mr. Dawson was still studying with Mr. Carl Henry at the Lincoln Instructional Center in Dallas, and said at that time:
I’m happy to have learned from George Dawson about America and about how a unique yet representative person sees the world. And I am grateful for my continuing Aesthetic Realism education about how to be truly kind and to criticize contempt everywhere it may be. This is what Aesthetic Realism can teach to all people. Dear reader, it is the knowledge you were born to know.
To learn more, you may contact the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene St., NYC 10012, (212) 777-4490; www.AestheticRealism.org