I am honored to present to you my interview with well-known author, educator, and my new friend, Dr. George E. Stanley. George’s latest and daring novel, Night Fires (ALADDIN, Simon & Schuster, 2009), quite frankly, disgusted me. However, I couldn’t put it down. All week I kept telling my son, you have to read this! Why? Because it’s a part of history I chose to bury deep inside myself, with the hopes of never having to deal with it, or hear about it – until now. You know, sometimes in life the truth rears its ugly head for a reason. Sometimes we have to learn, whether we like it or not. We all can afford to learn. And this year, I challenge teachers to incorporate truthful, historical accounts, through their fictional selections. In other words, diversify your curriculum a bit. Students need to learn the good, the bad, and the ugly about America’s history, so not to hurt, but to heal. I highly recommend starting that healing with Night Fires (grades 7-12).
AB – What made you decide to write a book about the Ku Klux Klan operating in Lawton, Oklahoma?
A few years ago, I was writing an eight-volume set of books for World Almanac/Gareth Stevens called A PRIMARY SOURCE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. Wow! What a project. It took an enormous amount of research but it is doing very well – and I think it’s a fascinating look at the United States from around 1492 until 2004 – through all kinds of documents. Well, the Ku Klux Klan kept coming up, from the Civil War period, to the 1920s, and to the 1960s and civil rights. I’ve always been perversely fascinated by the KKK. (It just amazes me that grown men would dress up in these white costumes for the purpose of terrorizing people – namely African-American, Jews, and Catholics. I spent the 1969-1970 academic year during doctoral work at the University of Kansas in Lawrence (I ended up doing all of my doctoral work at the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa – more later) and once, when driving back from Kansas to Texas (where my parents lived) I pulled off the highway onto a rest stop (just an asphalt extension with a couple of trash cans) and on the other side of a barbed-wire fence I saw a sign tacked to a big tree. It was advertising a meeting of the local KKK. This was actually in the spring of 1970. Well, I took it down, and I’ve kept it all these years, to remind myself and other people that the KKK is still operational.) I was talking to a colleague about my research and mentioned the KKK and I was told that in the 1920s, Lawton has a lot of KKK parades through downtown and meetings on farms around the city and that the KKK’s stated purpose was to clean up crime in Lawton. I was also told that during that time almost half of the members of the state legislature belonged to the KKK. I started looking into the situation in Lawton and discovered that all that was true and that at one time there was a Klan mayor – and that the city, very much like the state, was split down the middle between members of the Klan and people who wanted to get rid of it. About that time, too, I was thinking (still thinking, that is) about a novel about a young boy looking for a father figure because his was killed in an automobile accident when the boy was two years (this is me) – and about that time, too, I kept seeing all these reports on the news about young people, the children of members of white supremacist groups, who were starting bands and singing hate songs, protesting against African-Americans in any setting where they could, and … it just all came together. I suddenly wondered what would happen if a boy of 13 (a very difficult age for boys – at least a difficult age for me) who had just lost his father, a military man, who really didn’t understand his son, met a man, who did, and who had lost his son. I thought the initial bonding would be easy… but I’m getting to another one of the questions.
AB – How would you advise a teacher to set the stage to prepare students for the plot of the novel? This is tricky, no?
Yes, this is hard, and yes, it’s tricky. A friend of mine who is Library Director at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma, told me she thought the book should be a required part of a social studies curriculum. I liked that. The lesson, which would certainly go on for several days would be about 1) making choices and the ramifications of those choices, 2) the use of "hate words" to assault people, and 3) the use of religion to justify committing heinous crimes.
I think there could be a class discussion about choices the students themsevles have made where the choices were right and where the choices were wrong. I think it would be all right to talk about friends or relatives (no names, probably) who had made right choices (determine what the right choices were and what the wrong choices were) and what happened – and about friends and relatives who had made the wrong choices – and what happened. If the students know why the people being discussed made the wrong choice, maybe they could then talk about why they think the wrong choice was made. We all are confronted with forks in the road – sometimes daily – and we have to decide which way to go. Sometimes I break out in a cold sweat when I think about choices I have had to make professionally – to support a chair of a department or not to support that person; to support a dean or not to support a dean (because that dean was making my life miserable).
I am very concerned about the use of hate words – and I think they should be listed: nigger, faggot, queer, rag head, chink, spick – and on and on. If we try to gloss over these, these kinds of discussions are meaningless. A person needs to hear how horrible these words are – and a person needs to know that if you assault an individual with these words you are committing a hate crime. I frankly believe that verbal assaults can be worse than physical assaults, because the body can usually heal; and I am not sure the psyche every heals.
It’s important to understand, too, that the KKK uses Christianity to "justify" its crimes. In fact, Christianity has been used in other periods of history (the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition) to justify horrific acts. Today, we see Islam being defiled in the same way. Religions are about love. They’re not about hate.
With this introduction, I now think students are prepared for NIGHT FIRES. As I told you earlier, I truly believe that we try to sanitize social history for young people, when we should be putting them right in the middle of situations such as those depicted in NIGHT FIRES and letting them feel uncomfortable. If we don’t, then just talking about it is meaningless.
AB – Woodrow Harper, the main character, strikes me as the timeless boy who wants to please everyone, yet he makes me wonder about his choices. Why is he so drawn to Mr. Crawford, yet loyal to his mother, and deceased father?
I think Woodrow is a good example of a white boy during this time period who had a stern (and seemingly unloving) military father and who had a mother who, from various scenes in the book, was probably too clinging. I’m thinking she probably did as her husband told her to do and that so did Woodrow. Although Woodrow loved his mother, at 13 (that difficult age for boys) he’s beginning to make some of his own choices. When he meets Senator Crawford, he’s immediately taken by a man who seems to like him for what he is, something he believes his father never did. When Woodrow finds out that with Senator Crawford he can do all of the things he always wanted to do with his father he couldn’t be happier. (He was already worried about getting to know people in Lawton; he mentions that he really had started to like Washington, because he had started to make some new friends, something he couldn’t do when his parents were moving from Army post to Army post.
Now, here comes the part where I think we’re all vulnerable. We can be seduced by power. Although Woodrow had been taught better (and we learn this from comments he makes from time to time and from comments his mother makes), it’s very seductive when people are deferential to you because you have power – or in Woodrow’s case, because you’re with someone who is powerful. (Hey! We only have to look to Washington, D.C., to see this at work!!) Woodrow knows better, in his heart, but here’s someone who – he thinks – loves him like a son and wants him to take the place of the son who was killed in World War I. When Woodrow realizes how deep he’s being pulled in, though, we see his naiveté coming through. He is so positive that Senator Crawford wants him to be his son so much that he (Woodrow) can make the man see the error of his ways. (Again, how many people get married, thinking that they will be able to change their future spouse???) Toward the end, when he is confronted with the decision to whip Joshua or not to whip him, he makes a terrible choice (and he’ll always have to live with it) but once again his desire for his own happiness clouds his judgment – and I don’t think that’s at all unusual. Again, naively, he thinks everything will be all right, if he just does this one last thing for Senator Crawford, but in the last scene he realizes that he should have learned from everyone who told him that his father loved "nigras." But SEDUCTION is the operative word here. We human beings are frail, and we’re easily seduced by power.
AB – Could you compare Woodrow to a boy/character living in the 21st century, and the challenges he would have to face in today’s world, given the same racial tensions? (Lord of the Flies kept coming to my mind when I started to study his character.)
Unfortunately, Amy, I think NIGHT FIRES could happen today – and I think it does. I don’t necessarily think it happens to young people on the same social level (although I could be wrong here) as Woodrow, but it certainly happens to young people who (wanting to blame everyone else for their ills, whatever those ills are) will listen to adults spewing hatred and become followers. The newspapers and websites carry these stories frequently.
AB – Your prelude [disclaimer] to the novel advises readers that the language is disturbing, so how would an educator explain to students this type of language – knowing that it was used in the early 1900s (and still used today).
Actually, that disclaimer at the beginning of the book was put in by Simon & Schuster, mainly to let people know that the publisher and the author realized how offensive these terms and actions were but to be faithful to the time period and how things actually were it was necessary. I think they were a little nervous about it, because people seem to want to brush it all under the rug. I’m telling you, Amy, that that’s never going to solve the racial issues in this country. We can’t tiptoe around issues and accomplish anything. As I said earlier, I think we make a terrible mistake as educators by not tackling this problem head on. When people say, "Don’t use the N-word," where’s the "terribleness" in that? When we’re DISCUSSING the problem, we shouldn’t be so timid. Here’s an example. Not too long ago, I was listening to a news story (I got in on the middle of it) about young people who had pledged not to use the "R-word." Amy, I had no idea what they were talking about. I had to do some research. I’m thinking it’s because people often say, REtard. Why can’t we just say, "Using the word REtard for someone with special needs is very hateful and no right-minded person and intelligent person would ever do that."
AB – How did you conduct your research for NIGHT FIRES?
The stories about the KKK in Lawton and in Oklahoma were readily available in local libraries and I simply used what I found as the framework for NIGHT FIRES. I’ve lived in Lawton for 40 years so I have a very good understanding of the city and its history.
AB – What is Lawton like today? Do these issues of racism still exist? Please explain.
One of the things I like about Lawton is its diversity. There is a very large African-American community, a very large Korean community, and Philippino and Native American (Comanche, Kiowa, Apache), and many European groups, and Indian and Pakistani and Lebanese and on and on. The university has large communities of students from the Caribbean, Nepal, and Nigeria – all in about 100,000 people. Lawton did have racial problems up until the middle part of the last century and maybe a decade beyond. The city is integrated. Where I live, I have African-American neighbors on three sides. Today, you live where you can afford to live. Having Fort Sill here has helped the matter, too. After the US Army integrated the troops, it wouldn’t tolerate problems from surrounding communities. Intermarriage between whites and African-Americans is just as common as marriage between two white people or two African-Americans. I’m sure there are people who disapprove but they do so in the privacy of their own homes – and I’m not even sure there are that many people. I certainly don’t hear anything about it.
The following bio blurb is from Cameron University:
George Edward was born and reared in Memphis, Texas. He took his B.A. (1965, French, Portuguese, and German) and M.A. (1967, German and English Linguistics) from Texas Tech University and his Doctor Litterarum (1974, African Linguistics) from the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Dr. Stanley and his wife, Gwen, live in Lawton, Oklahoma. Gwen teaches German and Russian at one of the city’s high schools. They have two sons, James and Charles, and a daughter-in-law, Charles’s wife, Aubrey. They also have a grandson, Luke Edward Stanley, James’s son.
Thank you, George, for your graciousness of spirit, your candor, and your free professional development. I learned so much! *smile*Here’s a complete listing of George’s works which comes via WorldCat.
FYI…My >>>YES!!!<<< highlights are in RED.