Officials at a North Texas school named after a Black man who learned to read and write when he was 98 years old has ruled that a portion of his memoir describing his best friend getting lynched is not appropriate for some students.
The Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, started evaluating the content of the book “Life is So Good” by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman this summer after a 7th grade teacher intended to add the title as a required reading for a journalism class, according to Lane Ledbetter, the district’s superintendent and a district documents obtained by CNN.
Ledbetter said on Wednesday that school officials determined one chapter of Dawson’s book was not appropriate for the students’ age group and ruled the book can only be used with “teacher-led instruction.”
A spokesman for the school district told CNN the teacher works at George Dawson Middle School. The school was named after Dawson when it opened in 2002. He earned national recognition around 2000 for championing literacy by learning to read at 98 years old.
In his book, Dawson recounts his life experiences, the interactions he had with people in the rural South as a Black man and how he eventually learned to read after joining a literacy program.
The district’s spokesman said school officials were concerned about the first chapter of Dawson’s book, which includes numerous racial epithets and references Dawson witnessing the lynching of a friend. CNN has confirmed the chapter was set in 1908 and describes Dawson, then a 10-year-old in Marshall, Texas, at a general store when he heard a commotion outside. One of his friends was accused of rape by a group of White men and Dawson witnessed him getting lynched. In the book, Dawson was adamant about his friend’s innocence.
“I cried for me. I cried for Pete. I cried for the little ones and for Mama and Papa. I cried for all the pain that there was in this world. Papa had his own tears and he just held me,” Dawson wrote in the book about his reaction following the lynching.
Ledbetter, the district’s superintendent, said the school’s principal is working with the teacher to find a way to “to ensure that sensitive content is delivered in the most age-appropriate manner, while maintaining the integrity of the content of the book, the author’s intended message, and certainly honoring the legacy of Mr. Dawson.”
In his request to have the book considered as a required reading, the teacher said the first chapter was the only graphic part of the book but said “it is important to remember the trauma African Americans – including George Dawson – had to experience during this time,” according to the document obtained by CNN.
The district’s review of the book has drawn criticism from community members, Dawson’s relatives and his co-author.
Glaubman, who co-wrote the book, told CNN that he was saddened to hear there were discussions over whether “Life is So Good” should be censored. He said viewing the lynching was a defining and painful moment in Dawson’s life that he carried until the day he died.
“The pain and injustice that he saw, the pain and injustice that he endured in his own life, drove him to live the best life that he could,” Glaubman said.
Glaubman said he believes the “students of George Dawson Middle School would continue to benefit from Dawson’s full story, even the parts that may make us feel deeply uncomfortable.”
For years, the school has hosted public readings of “Life is So Good” at the campus library and has offered opportunities for students to learn about Dawson’s life.
Christopher Irvin, Dawson’s great-grandson, told CNN he was upset to see the legacy of his family tarnished by the ongoing debate over how teachers can talk about race. He and his family have visited the school for several years to attend cover-to-cover readings of the memoir.
“I don’t think his story could be adequately told once you remove those sections because that’s part of his life,” Irvin told CNN. “I can’t go and take away the bad of your life and just talk about the good and say that’s all it happened in your life… that’s unfair.”
Anya Kushwaha, one of the founders of Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition, an advocacy group of current and former students fighting for change in the district, said the review of the book signals the impact of the “ultra conservative school board and administration” currently leading the school district and how far they are from recognizing “our own history, which is Black history and the history of people of color.”
Carroll ISD, which serves the Dallas and Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, has been the center of several controversies in recent years. Since last year, the Department of Education’s office for civil rights has launched at least two investigations into allegations of discrimination.
Last fall, a local school administrator told teachers that if they have books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries, they should also include books that present “opposing” views.
While the book’s review and other controversies may be discouraging for students, Kushwaha says her group continues to encourage students to voice their opinions at school board meetings and contact administrators.
“At the end of the day, this is about the students who are on the inside and experiencing this firsthand,” Kushwaha said.