In 1993, Sarah and Elizabeth Delany became overnight celebrities with the publication of their memoir, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, written in collaboration with New York Times reporter Amy Hill Hearth. It became a national bestseller, was adapted into a highly successful stage play and TV movie, and led to two more books by the Delanys.

“Sweet Sadie” and “Queen Bess,” as they called one other, have since passed on. But picking up the torch are two black men, averaging 99 years of age, who have both published their memoirs this year, with the assistance of younger writers.

George Dawson, born in 1898, is the principal author of Life Is So Good (Random House, 260 pages, hardcover, $23), co-written with Richard Glaubman. The book was done as an oral history, and deals primarily with life in the South.

Earl Hutchinson Sr., born in 1903, is the lead author of A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America (Middle Passage Press, 96 pages, soft cover, $11.95). It takes place mainly in the Midwest and West. Hutchinson wrote most of the text himself; his son, the distinguished journalist, author and broadcaster Earl Ofari Hutchinson edited and reorganized the material into its final form.

Both volumes are excellent reads — instructive, insightful, emotionally moving and inspiring. And while they cover nearly the same historical period as the Delany sisters’ work, they examine it from very different perspectives. The Delanys were light-skinned, professional women with college degrees, who spent most of their careers in New York City. Dawson, on the hand, was not only uneducated, but illiterate, and never rose above blue-collar work. Hutchinson occupied the middle ground, spending most of his career working for the post office, and later getting his real estate license. Both men are dark of complexion, which undoubtedly raised the barriers for them.

Life is So Good

Life Is So Goodthe major work of the two. At about 100,000 words, it is five times the length of the Hutchinson book. Above all, it is a page-turner, rushing forward like a well-written novel, and breathing with authenticity. The editor preserves Dawson’s voice whenever possible, purposely not correcting the unschooled grammar. Examples: “It would of been a home run if we had fences” and “Most always we was supposed to look down on the ground when a white man was talking.”

Because Dawson was not influenced by newspapers, books, or historical events as they happened, his story is his alone, and acts as a mirror to the times in which he lived. The book has a timeless quality that will make it good reading a century from now. It brings to mind two classics — Alex Haley’s Roots and Ralph Ellison’s autobiographical novel, The Invisible Man. Except for a structural flaw — the unnecessary insertion of Glaubman himself into the body of the story, which disrupts the narrative flow — this book could become a classic in its own right.

Glaubman, an elementary school teacher in Washington state, was so moved by reading about Dawson in the newspaper that he traveled all the way to Dallas to meet him. Then, realizing the literary potential of Dawson’s life story, he persuaded the older man to let him move into his house, so that he could record his story on tape. Glaubman deserves a great deal of credit for making the book possible, and editing it so well. But he would have done better to tell about his involvement in the project only in the introduction, and leave the rest of the book for Dawson. Perhaps he will consider doing this in a second edition.

The book resembles Roots in its breathtaking detail about everyday life dating back to slavery. For this, Dawson relies on his own memory. He recalls the stories he heard directly from his grandmother, who was a slave during her childhood, and his great-grandmother, born in 1812, who was still alive during Dawson’s early years. His account of their stories, like many parts of the book, is riveting.

Like the main character in Invisible Man, Dawson recounts his experiences in traveling from place to place, working at a great variety of jobs, while trying to maintain dignity in the face of overt racism. Many parts of Life Is So Good are as vivid as Ellison’s great novel.

But unlike Ellison’s character, who was educated, Dawson had the burden of hiding his illiteracy from his employers, and even from his own children. It numbs the mind to think that Invisible Man was published 48 years ago, yet Ellison was actually 16 years younger than Dawson. Such is the miracle of extreme old age.

When I first read in an article that Dawson had learned to read at the age of 98, I didn’t believe it. By the time I got to the end of his book, I believed it.

A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America

A Colored Man’s Journey did not have a major publishing house behind it, and as a result, it received neither the advance publicity, the large press run, nor the meticulous proofreading of Dawson’s book. In fact, there are some noticeable typographical errors, even though they are not numerous.

The book begins with a timeline summarizing the major historical events affecting black Americans for the years 1903-64. The era begins with the first manned flight by the Wright Brothers and the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’ epochal book, The Souls of Black Folk. It ends with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hutchinson was born in Tennessee and grew up in St. Louis, which was once among the most notoriously racist cities in America. Throughout the book, he observes the historical events swirling around him, both nationally and locally, and his story plays off the larger events, providing a microcosm of how one man was affected by the changing laws and customs.

A fighter and a doer, who always seems to have a plan of action to raise his family’s fortunes, he tells of moving to Chicago while keeping his post office job, then scoring hard-fought victories against racism in the workplace and the housing market.

The book is anecdotal, rather than going into minute detail. The style is somewhat choppy, lacking the smooth gloss of Dawson’s book, but still compelling. With considerable skill, Hutchinson weaves together history, politics, sociology, personal experience, and thoughtful reflection into a complete fabric. One example:

“In the summer of 1955, we decided to visit very close friends who lived in Berkeley, California. We joined the Chicago automobile club. It had recently opened up membership to Negroes. We assembled all the information we could about California. We obtained the most important book needed for Negroes who traveled anywhere in the United States. It was called the ‘Green Book.’ The book contained a directory listing the places where a Negro could obtain lodging and food in each state.

“The ‘Green Book’ was the bible of every Negro traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s. You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.... At the time the Howard Johnson lodge and restaurant was the only national chain that I knew welcomed Negro travelers.”

While both books are successful on their own terms, they both suffer from a common fault of autobiographies: they initially describe every event in microscopic detail, then gradually lose steam, so that the story peters out, and virtually ends by the 1950s. One is left wondering how many memorable incidents from the past 40 or 50 years could be included, if the authors and their assistants had unlimited time and resources available, like a well-financed documentary filmmaker.

But this is only a minor fault. What did get into print was probably the most valuable part of the story — an eyewitness account of an age that has been largely excluded from the history books, and exists only in the memories of a handful of African-American centenarians.

Life Is So Good is available from

A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America can be purchased via credit card by calling 800-959-0509, or by sending a check to Middle Passage Press, 5517 Secrest Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90043. The price including postage and handling is $15.15.

Max Millard is a free-lance journalist and a former staff writer for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco’s oldest weekly African-American newspaper. E-mail:

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