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Writers Against Racism: George E. Stanley

George E. Stanley is professor of African and Middle-Eastern Languages and 
stanley Writers Against Racism: George E. Stanley
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.

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     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!  

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, in my 67 years, I have encountered very few people whose friendship means as much to me as yours does. What a strange set of circumstances this has been, but I truly believe it was all meant to take place. We shall meet in person one of these days, I have no doubt, and I hope it will be when WRITERS AGAINST RACISM convenes on a national level to bring about needed change. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and thank you to all the other incredible writers whose stories have been on these pages.

  2. Amy Bowllan says:

    George, your teachings have brought me and my readers to a NEW level of understanding, and for that I am eternally grateful, friend. ;)

  3. LaTonya says:

    Ed,

    I have enjoyed reading all your comments during the series. Your steady flow of responses is a demonstration of a real commitment to bringing about change and supporting others.

    I’m a parent and no gasp here. While I believe parents should be actively involved and I am equally disturbed how parents can wield their influence to the detriment of our students’ education.

    I really love, “Fiction is often a better “textbook” than non-fiction because fiction allows readers to “live” what’s happening on the pages.” Wish I had said it.

    Not long ago, according to my stats, I believe either you or your students visited Color Online. Thank you. I was flattered. I hope they found something useful to build upon.

    Loved your post. Thank you.

  4. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    oh man, I had a long long post here and God must have been watching. You’re form thingy took it into cyberspace with the cyber angels so I guess God didn’t want me to show it.

    Thank you for your thoughts

  5. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, I’d be hard pressed to remember an experience which has meant so much to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart – and it’s not over! LaTonya, I’ve mentioned Color Online to several people at the university. Thanks, too, for your very kind remarks. And JoAnn, I wish you’d repost, because now I’ll be wondering all day what you were going to say. Thank you, too, for all your responses. This has to continue so we can all meet in person.

  6. Doret says:

    George, it was a pleasure to read more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments through out this series. Always very supportive and positive.

    “Literature seems like a good way to bypass negative parental influence on young children.”

    The is a great and true quote.

  7. George Edward Stanley says:

    Doret, I feel the same about your comments on all the posts. Thank you! Think how wonderful it would be for this nation to have an entire generation reared on literature that celebrates both our differences and our similarities. It’s almost impossible to imagine – but it could happen, and I’m hoping with all my heart that it will happen.

  8. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    i hear you George and i agree! Simon & Schuster is lucky to have you as an author.

    thanks for all your unyielding support to all of us. i feel as if i know you and we’ve never met. : )

    gracias!

  9. Edi says:

    George,
    I am so glad you contributed as well, you have so much to add to this discussion!

    I didn’t get angry at all about the role of parents. But, I do think they should be involved in schools. They should especially be involved in the planning stages so that when curriculum is being implemented, they can support the educators. Too often today we want to silence those we don’t agree with when we really need to be listening what they have to say. We need to teach children how to listen, analyze and critique ideas whether or not they agree with them and not just attempt to shut them down. While such an education should take place in the classroom, parents should especially make sure they’re raising children who are critical and independent thinkers. Obviously, this is the gift your parents gave you! When we start to listen to one another, we start to get along.

  10. Zetta says:

    Thanks for being a driving force in this campaign, George!

  11. George Edward Stanley says:

    Thank you, Mayra, and I agree. I feel as though I know EVERYONE who has been commenting! And Edi, I really do agree with your comments about a lot of parents and their involvement. We fully supported our sons’ teachers – and we never, never interferred with what they were doing in the classroom. It just seems that there are too many ill-informed parents today who have decided that they are going to determine curricula. Too, it just seems to me that so many parents are abrogating their parental responsiblities. I hear horror stories from teachers I know. Of course, as you so clearly put it, this is not a simple situation and it won’t be solved by simple responses. Again, thanks so much!

  12. George Edward Stanley says:

    Zetta, I think you’re amazing – and I’m looking forward to the day we can all meet and just talk, talk, talk. Thank YOU!

  13. Mary Ann Rodman says:

    Amy, a thousand thank yous for this terrific series, (I forgot to thank you when I was interviewed.) Just when I didn’t think anyone could add anything new to the discussion, we have George and his unique experience. How good it is to know that from our individual experiences, we are adding to the often over-pastuerized curricula that passes for education. However, I know from corresponding with educators in other countries that we are not alone in burying or ignoring “difficult” subjects. (And I am making this statement both as a writer AND a parent.)

  14. George Edward Stanley says:

    Mary Ann, friend, what can I say? We met on this blog!! I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind, kind comments and for your continuing friendship. Your YANKEE GIRL is still with me – and I love JIMMY’S STARS, but it’s a much different read for me, because it always takes me back to my elementary school days in Memphis, Texas, where I get to relive those years and remember family members who are no longer here, and I just do not want it to end. I’ve even gone back and reread a couple of chapters over and over. Suffice it to say, you are an incredible writer, and you’ll always be one of my favorites.

  15. tanita says:

    Wow — quite a few “zingers” in this piece — places where I stopped and said, “Oh, yeah.” I’m not teaching right now, but I very much agree – with sadness – that a lot of parents are much more concerned with their kids being indoctrinated than educated. It sounds like you were an extraordinarily aware child, and that really has shaped the man you are. Very cool.

    Looking forward to reading Night Fires — the cover is just terrifying and gorgeous.

  16. George Edward Stanley says:

    Tanita, please know that I absolutely cherish these comments. You have no idea! Thank you so much, and thank you for all the good words from your story. I really felt connected.

  17. B Herrera says:

    I have been busy for the last few days and missed some blogs, but I must comment on this one. As I read it I realized that we have all been treated dreadfully at one time or another – color, religion, ability, social standing, or any other excuse for bullying. Sadly, this is a natural human impulse in order to make ourselves feel better, but it can be overcome. As children we are taught not to burp in public. Why aren’t we taught not to put others down? What really worries me is the idea that people have taken this bullying to the Internet, where children harass others and adults namecall others who disagree on comment sections. Perhaps we need to go back to teaching manners in school – starting with the adults! I love to argue. I will take either side so we can explore all possibilities. But I cannot stand to fight. It is not winning to make the other person feel less, yet that is what racism and descrimination does to every one they touch. George, I want to take this time to thank you for teaching me all those years ago – your first year in Lawton. When Amy talks of you teaching her, I think how lucky I am to have had your influence when I was 16 and a freshman. I have always told everyone that you are the reason I am able to write as well as I do. Now I need to add that you are one of the reasons I think as I do. Thank you. I may have taken forty years to get around to thanking you in person, but I have always considered you the most influential teacher in my life. I never called you my hero because you are much more than that. You are the person who gave me importance and a voice, all without doing more than you job as a teacher. I remember another young man in my class who was just as eager to learn from you. I don’t know his name, but I often wonder how many other students you quietly influenced. Thanks for letting me me one of them.

  18. B Herrera says:

    I have to comment on Night Fires. I picked it up this summer. I read it. My daughter (a senior at UT) read it. My husband read it. We all agree. It needs to be read by all. It is an easy read (designed for a younger audience), yet it is one of the hardest reads I’ve had (realizing that we are constantly faced with the choice of ‘fitting in’ or ‘doing the right thing.’ I read quite a lot, but I can’t get this book out of my mind. It is now in our high school library and I recommend it people of all ages – simply because we need to recognize that we are faced with hard choices every day and we don’t always make the right one, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on ourselves or the world.
    George, this book has to be from your heart because every word in it touches mine. Thank you for writing it. Thank you for sending me the cover art last fall. And I am glad I was able to pick up a copy when I was in Oklahoma. It reminded me of how powerful words can be.

  19. George Edward Stanley says:

    Beverly, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate what you said in these comments. You may have learned from me, way back when, as they say, but I am now learning from you. You are incredible. Keep up the great work you’re doing, friend!

  20. B Herrera says:

    What I am doing is not work. It is what makes me happy. And I speak not to flatter, but to tell others that you have always been what you are now; a caring, gentle, articulate person. I remember my first paper for you, and your words to the class, “Here are your papers, but don’t worry. Come by my office and we’ll make them better.” Thanks for taking the time to help me make my writing better. And for inspiring me again today, years later. Because of you I am going to write my book – I have signed up for the National Novel Writing Month as a way to finish my writing. Too many times my writing has been pushed aside so that I can edit someone else’s. I don’t care if anyone else wants to read my book. I will be happy when I have read what is floating around in my mind.