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NIGHT FIRES by George E. Stanley: "A person needs to hear how horrible these words are…"

I am honored to present to you my interview with well-known author, educator, and my new friend, Dr. George E. Stanley.  Dr. George E. Stanley (photo comes via Cameron University)George’s latest and daring novel, Night Fires (ALADDIN, Simon & Schuster, 2009), quite frankly, disgusted me. However, Night Fires (Simon & Schuster 2009) 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.

     Dr. Stanley has lived all over Europe and Africa, studying and teaching foreign languages, working for the U.S. government, and writing books for young people and adults.  To date, he has published over 200 short stories in American, British, Irish, and South African magazines and linguistics articles in major international journals.  He has written over 100 books for young people (published by Simon  & Schuster, Random House, Sterling Publishing Company, Scholastic Books, Avon/William A. Morrow, and others) and one book on writing, published by Writer’s Digest Books.
    Dr. Stanley has been on the faculty of Cameron University for almost 40 years.  He is currently Professor of African and Middle-Eastern Languages and Linguistics and teaches Arabic, Persian, Russian, and Swahili.  He also tutors Dari, Indonesian, Pashto, Somali, and Urdu.  

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.  


  1. Joyce McG says

    Amy, your interview with author George Edward is riveting & thought-provoking. Amen to Edward’s comment that 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.” Part of what feeds this is our collective timidity in selecting literature for the classroom, even with young adults. Textbook publishers, parents, school districts, all of us get caught up in not wanting to offend, but if I understand Edward correctly, this inclination to avoid offense through silence has an ironic outcome, because because it allows injustices to flourish without a word to the contrary. Discussions of sensitive issues are always messy, painful, and awkward, but then again, some journeys can only be achieved when they allow for missteps and the map gets lost. If critical discussions of essential human questions cannot occur in the very places where we come together to learn from and about each other, where are they to take place?

  2. Joyce McG says

    Darn my conflation of names! I was of course referring to your interview with author George Edward Stanley, whose name I cited incorrectly. Pardon the error, please.

  3. Amy Bowllan says

    Joyce, thank you for your insightful response to my interview. We must provide teachers with the professional development they so need in choosing works that challenge the norm. We also have to dare them to be different and then model the behaviors we want to see manifested in our classrooms.

    George is an amazing man and someone who is trailblazing many of these efforts.

    Again, thanks, Joyce! 🙂

  4. George Edward Stanley says

    Amy, I really appreciated these affirming comments from Joyce McG. We all need to stop being so timid and so silent… and so afraid that people will get offended by these open discussions when we all know that the greater offenses will occur if we don’t speak out.

  5. Amy Bowllan says

    I agree, George. The question remains, HOW do we convince the decision makers that these are important issues???

  6. George Edward Stanley says

    Amy, I’m taking your question as my marching orders, so here’s what I’m going to do in next few days. I’m going to start at the top. I’m going to send a copy of NIGHT FIRES and a summary of these discussions we’ve been having to:
    First Lady Michelle Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder (who spoke of the need for just such a dialogue – and was castigated for doing do), and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who understands that the system of education in this country is in desperate need of repair (and that part of that repair should be addressing race relations). This may seem grandiose to some people, and over-the-top, but you never know if you don’t try. In my opinion, too, this is going to have to start with the African-American community. I think white educators are too scared to initiate any dialogue having to do with race relations.

  7. Amy Bowllan says

    Brilliant! ..simply brilliant idea, George! I will jump on the bandwagon, if you need the “black” voice. We have tip-toed for far too long and our young people deserve more in this century we call, 21st. With the exception of technological advancements, it’s been anything but. Once we have healthy, unedited discussions, then and only then, will we emerge as a united-human-race. imho Good idea!!! Wow!

  8. George Edward Stanley says

    Onward and upward! We won’t stop! We need all the voices we can get. And you are so right: We really have failed our young people in this matter! We’re guilty of letting a small number of individuals ban books from libraries. And we’re guilty of letting a small number of individuals set educational policies which stifle or ban altogether healthy discussions of subjects they deem “inappropriate.” This has to stop.

  9. mary ann rodman says

    I know exactly what you are talking about when it comes to the
    “names issue.” I have had exactly the same problem with my book YANKEE GIRL, which involves the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in the 1960’s. I have had teachers “love” the book, then proceed to substitute the word “Negro” for “nigger”. I had a major library system announce that my book should not be read, and that it was offensive. This was followed by their state reading association nominating YANKEE GIRL for a state book award. Go figure!
    There is a reason I made the word choices I did, and rest assured it was not for shock value…it was to remind people that this is the way people talked in my childhood, and that it was demeaning and hurtful. It seems that we are on the same page. I can’t wait to read NIGHT FIRES…and I am also taking notes on your ways of dealing with the “gatekeepers of reading.”

  10. Melissa E. says

    I have a rather different perspective, I grew up in Lawton and I vividly remember when my school was integrated. I also remember a private local swimming pool & park that was closed because the owners refused to admit Blacks. There was a group of influential local people who made integration as dignified as possible. I agree with Dr. Stanley, much has changed in Lawton, it is considered one of the most integrated cities in the U.S.
    I was astonished to see a picture of a mother (dressed in klan “finery”) dressing her young child in klan costume in a local newspaper in east Texas in 1975. I couldn’t believe that kind of nonsense was still happening.
    We still have work to change hearts and attitudes.

  11. George Edward Stanley says

    Mary Ann: I just ordered YANKEE GIRL, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Great, great reviews. It does make you wonder, doesn’t it, why a teacher would talk about how wonderful a book is and then proceed to make oral changes of the things that were responsible for what made the book so successful in first place: showing readers how awful the period really was. We all need to feel uncomfortable, young people included. Nothing is going to be achieved by sanitizing history. And we all need to start speaking up as a block against this. In addition to some of the things I’m already planning, I’m thinking about asking some national writer’s organizations I belong to to join in. We’ll see.

    Melissa: I really appreciated your Lawton remembrances. I was aware of much of that, having been told it, but you experienced it. I agree that Lawton is now one of the most integrated cities in the United States. I felt the same way you felt when you saw those pictures of the mother dressing her daughter in Klan “finery” when I saw that sign on the tree in Kansas in 1970: I was absolutely astonished.

    And Amy, wonderful Amy, thank you for all your wonderful blogs and all your incredible support!

  12. I grew up around Lawton and remember the pool and the segregated schools. In the eighties I coached and fell in love with many of the players, most of whom were black. They teased me about my white legs, asking me if I were wearing socks all the way up, and I teased them about being jeoulous of their ‘permanent tan.’ They and their families took me in, inviting me to meals and clinging to me when their family members died. We laughed and learned from each other. We did not hide that we had differences in skin color – it wasn’t important enough for us to give it that much power. As one of my kids said, “If there’s a race war, I’m in trouble. My mother is white and my father black. So I’m just going to enjoy the best of both.” Much could be learned if we learned from our mistakes and began enjoying the best of all worlds.

  13. Amy, thanks for interviewing this author. You are right, it needs to be part of history teaching, just as slavery, just as the holocaust. I have always said, and taught that silence condones approval. We have a duty to speak up. We have to tell the truth so we can heal. We have to also look around and see where some of it is still being exemplified in today’s society, because it is. Gangs of all races, white supremesists are out there. They can lure others in through friendship and building “trust” in those who are vulnerable in one way or another. Hate is not the answer, it only creates ignorance.

  14. Any I’m so impressed that these messages are & will be preserved forever!!God bless you for your pursuit of WISDOM & for being so spontaneous!! love ya Mom

  15. Thanks, Mom! As you know, George was a great mentor and educator to me. I’m hopeful that he’s onto his next big project ‘upstairs’. I promised him that we would make it to The White House to meet the AG and speak on a national platform. He knows I tried.

  16. You will not be loved if you care for none but yourself. – Spanish Proverb


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