George E. Stanley is professor of African and Middle-Eastern Languages and
Linguistics Department of English and Foreign Languages Cameron University.
After my father was killed in 1944, my mother, my sister, and I lived in my grandparents in Memphis, Texas. My first encounter with racism was there in 1946 or 1947, I don’t really remember, but it involved my grandfather’s “renting” one of his cotton farms to a black man. From time to time, I would hear snippets of conversation about how other farmers didn’t think that was a good idea (and maybe my grandmother didn’t, either, but more about that later). It just wasn’t done. But my grandfather was a wonderful man. Neal, the man in question, had worked for him, probably plowing and then planting the cotton, and he evidently asked my grandfather if he could rent one of his farms. That meant Neal would pay my grandfather a set percentage of what he made – and he would keep the rest. That arrangement certainly wasn’t uncommon – but the color of the renter’s skin was. I remember during this time all of us driving to Morningside, the area of Memphis where African Americans lived, and I remember standing up in the back seat in wonderment at this all-black town. (Later, I would become familiar with all-black towns in Oklahoma.)
My father’s family all lived (and still do) in eastern Oklahoma, and my mother, my sister, and I would spend the entire month of July in Tahlequah, Muskogee, and Fort Gibson, and this is where I encountered another type of racism. My Grandmother Stanley was born in Indian Territory in the late 1800s and was part Cherokee. I think most people in Oklahoma (whose families have been here a long time) are part-Native American. At the time, you didn’t talk about it, though. It was just something that had happened. I do remember hearing the term “full-blood” a lot. It was just an odd sort of racism to me. Years later, I would learn more about it in South Africa with the “Coloureds.” When Caucasians married into another race, the resulting “in betweens” lived in a kind of twilight before the “pride in race” movement began. In fact, I remember hearing a Comanche woman in Lawton in 1970 (she was a cashier at a local cafeteria) telling a customer ahead of me, “I don’t know what the big deal about being Indian is.” She was referring, of course, to the pride Native American young people were beginning to have in their heritage. I am very proud of my Cherokee blood.
The grandmother we lived with in Memphis was from Alabama. I still remember a big brown pitcher which belonged to one of her Alabama relatives. It on a shelf above the sink, and everyone heard the story about how “the Yankees had stolen it from their house and later thrown it into a ditch.” My grandmother wasn’t a bad woman by any means, but she wouldn’t talk to any black person at our front door. They had to come to the back door. Once when there was a pile of lumber in the backyard, material left over from a construction project, she called a local black man to remove it for her, and she couldn’t believe that he actually wanted to charge her for doing that. In her mind, he should have been happy that somebody was willing to give him this leftover lumber. None of this made sense to me, but it made perfect sense to someone of her generation.
I grew up with “Coloreds Only” signs all over Memphis. I remember seeing black people ordering meals from restaurants and soft drinks and ice cream from drug stores – all at the front of the businesses.
I don’t remember being aware of any hatred the white citizens felt for the black citizens. That was just the way it was.
I do remember one summer during the early 60’s coming home from college, taking various canned goods from the pantry, and then going to some of the houses where blacks lived (no longer just in Morningside), knocking on the doors, and announcing that I was the Memphis representative of the NAACP. The residents all had strange looks on their faces. When I told my mother, she just smiled and looked embarrassed. My mother was good woman, too, and she had a very good relationship with a lot of the black residents of Memphis (she was a doctor’s nurse), but I’m sure, as with the rest of the residents, it was that Southern paternalistic attitude, that we need to take care of you.
I think there was a little more hostility in Texas toward Mexicans – and part of that is probably historical. They weren’t to be trusted. They were slick and sly and would probably knife you if you met one in a dark alley. Actually, as I’ve mentioned before, I always wanted to be friends with the Mexican young people I saw, so they could “teach me to speak Spanish.” Our younger son married a wonderful girl who is second-generation Mexican-American.
While this is not a result of racism, it is certainly a result of what I think of as discrimination, and that’s the discrimination I felt in Memphis growing up because I was a boy and I didn’t play sports. That’s not normal, so you’re not normal, and you’re called names. I had good friends, and I was even popular, but I never felt I quite fit in. I’m sure this is one of the reasons that integration went so smoothly in West Texas (at least I don’t remember any riots): Just think of all those black football players we’ll be getting!!
All this happened before things started to change in the 1960s – but it will always be a part of the fabric of who I am.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?
I know it has. I took my doctorate in African Linguistics from the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa in 1974. I wanted to study the problems the Xhosa had being forced to learn both Afrikaans and English. It dealt with relative/identical semantic structuralization – how it’s often difficult to come up with synonyms in unrelated languages and how the culture has to be taken into consideration to determine meaning. (That’s very much a simplification.) While I was in South Africa, off and on, over a period of three years, I saw how apartheid worked. I was so stressed out I was always breaking out in rashes. I thought I was back in Memphis when I was growing up – except that there was a lot of anger just below the surface. (Maybe there was in Memphis, too, but I just wasn’t aware of it.) The South African newspapers were full of really strange stories that I thought I could turn into fiction (I had always wanted to write fiction!). One of my first published short stories appeared in an Irish woman’s magazine in 1974. It was called “The Classification” and was about a young “coloured” girl who had been reclassified Bantu by the government and would no longer be allowed to live with her family. Along with the story, there was a comment by Brian Cleeve, whom I didn’t know at the time, but who, I found out much later, was a famous Irish author and television celebrity. He and his family had once lived in South Africa but had been asked to leave because he had protested apartheid. Brian did one of the best jobs of explaining the horrors of apartheid I have ever read.
I have never considered myself a confrontational person, so many of my early books for young people have been about spies and secret codes, detectives, and funny characters, but I have also written several titles in Simon & Schuster’s CHILDHOOD OF FAMOUS AMERICANS where I think my personal experiences with racism and other forms of discrimination have affected my work. At least from the reviews, I think I was successful at portraying the early lives of GERONIMO AND CRAZY HORSE. I hope my SITTING BULL biography, out from Sterling in 2010, will be received the same way. I feel my early encounters with racism in Memphis allowed me to get inside both FREDERICK DOUGLASS and CORETTA SCOTT KING, when I wrote the Childhood of Famous Americans titles about them, to show their horrific battles with racism.
But it’s with NIGHT FIRES, out this summer from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, where I feel I was really able to say what I felt about racism and white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. I have never understood people being mean to other people. I have never understood people thinking they’re better than other people – because of the color of their skin, because of how much money they have, because of where they went to university, because they’re athletic, because they’re ANYTHING; and I’m sure there was some built-up anger that forced all of this out of me. I know I’ve been angry about growing up without a father. That was what set Woodrow’s story in motion. I know that we’re all put in situations where we have to make split section decisions that will forever change our lives. I think about that all the time. I’m hoping that NIGHT FIRES will be another nail in the coffin of racism around the world.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
I’m sure this will anger a lot of parents, but I think that parents are allowed to interfere too much today in school curricula. I can hear the gasps now. I know of instances where parents have been able to force a teacher to stop giving homework and not to teach certain (approved) materials. If these complainers don’t have the credentials to be in the classroom, why are they allowed in many cases to dictate the curricula? Many children aren’t really being educated. They’re just taking up space in a room until they return home to be indoctrinated. Many parents aren’t interested in anything that would combat racism and promote tolerance. I’m actually in favor of a national curriculum decided by experts in all traditional school subjects. This is what would be taught in every school in this country.
Fiction is often a better “textbook” than non-fiction because fiction allows readers to “live” what’s happening on the pages. That’s why I think novels that promote tolerance and understanding of EVERYONE in our society should be required reading. I honestly can’t say this better than my dear writer friend, Jim Bruce, who lives in Dublin, Ireland: “Literature seems like a good way to bypass negative parental influence on young children.” Heresy? Not when what these parents do to their children affects our society so negatively!