Author John Yearwood’s new novel is set in East Texas.

The Texas state flag.

A novel approach to critical thinking

Real-life murder used to explore racial and educational concerns in the rural South

The Texas state flag.

April 2023

BY KIM WHITING

Author John Yearwood’s new novel, Jar of Pennies, is based on the real-life murders of a young wife and her three-year old toddler in rural East Texas several decades ago—and how the killer was brought to justice. It’s also derived from Yearwood’s decades of study of the region’s culture and character, and explores its racial complexities with deep insight. The book’s subplots involving political corruption and illegal drugs also have a ripped-from-today’s-headlines vibe that indicate, as a main character observes, “nothing really changes.”

The tale is told through the eyes of a small town newspaper editor, an outsider observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the people in east Texas; not coincidentally, Yearwood was once the owner and editor of three small Texas newspapers. In Yearwood’s experience, crime and racial bigotry arise from the same cause: misguided, even cynical public educational policies.

“Public ignorance leads to failure of the educational system,” Yearwood says. He calls education in Texas an “assembly line process, as though children can be shoveled in like raw materials on one side and come out doctors and lawyers on the other side. This system is a complete and abject failure, and the result is racism, fear, and murder. Every episode in the book illustrates the ways in which ignorance is constantly overcoming efforts to improve humanity.”

Yearwood, who was also a high school teacher for 20 years, and a communications professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas for 15, introduces Jar of Pennies readers to a brilliant teacher named Charles Henniker, a Black military veteran who makes learning both creative and relevant to his students by developing their critical thinking skills—much to the displeasure of the school administration.

An excerpt:

The new high school social studies teacher was Black, and from up North. Everybody in Whitmire was uneasy about him. Charles Henniker had that way of moving that telegraphed danger, but he was friendly and bright-eyed. He said hello. He looked people in the face when he spoke to them and smiled. He always wore a clean shirt with a tie, and his shoes were always polished. He held out his hand to shake. He was learning how to duck his head just right, so as not to be offensive. In Whitmire, they’d never seen any Black man like that before. Some people resented his manners but couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Except, of course, that he was a different kind of Black.

Like every small town, what they didn’t know about someone they just made up. The only reason a Black man would move to rural East Texas had to be to get away from some kind of trouble back where he belonged, they supposed, so they made stuff up. Before he’d been in Whitmire a week, he had a fictional backstory of brothers in the state prison for rape and murder. He was accused of hijacking eighteen-wheelers for the mob. He was thought to be a drug runner. Some people said they just didn’t trust him because they didn’t know his people.

 

Author John Yearwood

 

The novel’s antagonist (the murderer), meantime, is a barely-educated White man who has never traveled more than 50 miles from his home. The contrast between the two men helps the reader better understand what “critical thinking” really is, and how a lack of it results in the perpetuation and exacerbation of racial prejudices and discord.

Henniker had come to recognize that the world’s safety depended on education. Educated kids able to think and reason were the ones who could prevent war. All war was the result of ignorant people doing ignorant things, and the only real defense was education.

The novel addresses how fear is a “rural pastime” in East Texas, practiced by locals on one another, and on most strangers, as a way of preventing social change. Although racial injustice has come to the forefront of American consciousness in the last few years, through political movements and police brutality cases, racial unrest and bigotry is nowhere more evident than in former slave states in America, and in Jar of Pennies’ fictional small town of Whitmire, Texas.

Says Yearwood, “In Jar of Pennies, as in East Texas today, the more modern the South becomes, the more desperately some White people cling to a myth of racial privilege and superiority.

Henniker had served twenty-three years as an Air Force officer and commando. He had a decent retirement salary. He had a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart in little boxes in his dresser drawer. He knew a thing or two about discipline and keeping his head down to keep from getting shot, so East Texas was no worse than Vietnam or Cambodia. In fact, if you substituted race for religion, they were about the same: same kinds of conflicts, same kinds of arguments, same kinds of tactics, same kinds of ignorant fundamentalist zeal. In the Middle East, you killed people over their supposed religion. In East Texas, you killed them over the supposed color of their skin. The subject of the conflict was different, but the conflict was the same.

This literary mission is not one I’d expect from a 75-five-year-old White man who was raised primarily in the South, and who resides there again now.

I was curious as to how Yearwood has cultivated such keen racial awareness, and a level of passion for racial justice that, in my experience as a Tulsa, Oklahoma resident,  is not the norm among Southern White men his age. I also wanted to learn more about his definition of  critical thinking,  and the ways that he’s seen racial ignorance both perpetuated and resolved

Whiting: Tell us about your upbringing, particularly what it was that sparked your awareness of and interest in racial issues?

Yearwood: My grandfather died when I was a teen, and after his death, my seventy-year-old grandmother, who lived in Greenville, Mississippi, was in an almost continuous state of abject terror. She was convinced a Black man was going to break into her house and rape her.  My mother, her only surviving child, lived in Hawaii where she refused to go because it had “too many brown-skinned people.”

In all fairness, my grandmother had lost two sons in World War II, so she knew that terrible things could happen to her. She was also so afraid that her beautiful trees were going to blow down onto her house that she had them taken down. It was that kind of fear. But the way her anxiety latched onto racial prejudices that she had been raised with, impacted me.

Her racism-fueled fear hit home for me that she’d never really known a Black person, particularly not a Black male, and of how insidious and misguided racial prejudices are. I came to the realization that there are little to no race relations in the south. There is a separateness that bred and continues to breed ignorance.

My dad was an Airforce officer, so we moved a lot. By the age of 18, I had lived in San Antonio, TX, Greenville, MS, Munich, Germany, Arlington, VA, Bossier City, LA, and Honolulu, HI.

Living in Germany showed me that the way people lived, thought and treated each other in the Southern U.S., especially the dynamics between Blacks and Whites, was not universal. But I was really shown a different reality when I moved to Hawaii in High School.

In Honolulu at that time, Caucasians comprised only about 7 percent of the population. At the private high school that I attended my senior year (the same high school former President Obama later attended), Caucasians made up about 15 percent of the student body. Not only were Whites a small minority, but there were so many racial groups at the school and in Honolulu—Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, various Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Indians, etc.— that Blacks were just one racial group in a stew of diversity, and so weren’t singled out.

On top of that, Polynesian and Asian cultures were predominant there, and Blacks didn’t have a history of oppression and being seen as inferior in those cultures. A Black kid growing up in Hawaii didn’t receive the cultural beating into submission and servility that a Black kid got (and in some ways still gets today) in say, Alabama.

 

John Yearwood’s 1965 high school photo from his senior year, in Honolulu, Hawaii; he chose a quote from Irish playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw. 

 

Whiting: How did this contrast with what you observed and experienced in Southern towns where you’d lived?

Yearwood: I lived in Bossier City, Louisiana for a while as a kid, and there were no Black kids in my neighborhood or school. At that time, Bossier had developed the kind of unsavory reputation for ignorance and reactionary violence that is typical of towns growing at the gates or ports of U.S. military installations around the world. Perhaps it’s an inevitable evil of military outposts everywhere.

Years later, in the late 1990s, when I taught inner-city kids in Beaumont, Texas, it was a school of 1800 students, and only 97 were White. A significant proportion of Black parents insisted that their children never be taught by White teachers. I would hear them say, “White folks have never done anything good for Blacks, so why subject our children to that?” And that worked because so many teachers at the school were Black.

About two decades prior to my teaching position, as was the case throughout the country at the time, Beaumont got big government money for “revitalization” and used it to bulldoze the Black neighborhoods, evicting people even if they owned the property. The city displaced people and fractured Black communities. This kind of blatant disregard and lack of respect for the Black community, along with the long history of racism in Texas, made it easy to see why they’d believe nothing good could come from mixing with White people. But the downside was that Black and White kids didn’t get the chance to get to know one another.

I founded and operated three small East Texas newspapers in the 1970s and ‘80s and once turned down an ad from the local Ku Klux Klan, for our  Christmas edition, that said “Have a White Christmas.” I needed the money, but I didn’t need that ad. So that’s some of what I dealt with as a newspaper publisher in East Texas, and that’s the culture Blacks were dealing with in the South at that time.

 

Beaumont, Texas

 

I tried as hard as I could to include news of the Black community in my publications, but there was a justifiable lack of trust toward a White-owned newspaper, so it was sometimes challenging.  My very first issue featured a lead photo, on page one, of the Black girls who won the 400-meter relay at the UIL (University Interscholastic League) State championship track meet. Two years later, one of the four drowned while wading in Lake Sam Rayburn when she accidentally stepped into a drop-off. As a Black girl, despite her physical prowess, she had never been allowed to learn to swim and the step killed her. I’m still seeing much the same racial dynamics and prejudices today that I saw back then, and there’s been some backsliding since Donald Trump became president.

Whiting: According to a 2022 Harris Survey, nearly half of White Americans don’t believe or are unconvinced that systematic racism exists, while more than 80 percent of Black respondents believe it does. I think this disparity occurs because Whites often don’t see the racism, partly because people of color in the South sometimes shy away from pointing out racial inequities, prejudices or even aggression toward them. It’s safer to stay quiet and below the White majority’s “radar.” You alluded to this dynamic when the teacher, Charles Henniker, is interviewing for a position in his new town, in this excerpt:

During his interview for the job with Arthur Shelby, the Whitmire school superintendent, Henniker was told at least half a dozen times there was no racism in Whitmire, and no racial unrest. Henniker learned that Superintendent Shelby had several good friends who were Black, and he had the highest respect for Black people in general. For example, he loved jazz and barbecue. Henniker did not ask him to name his Black friends…The superintendent wanted Henniker to know he was hired on probation as a first-year teacher, and the quickest way to lose his job was to make waves.

Yearwood: Henniker is based loosely on an outstanding Black football coach we had in Woodville, Texas during my early high school years. This coach taught me how Blacks adjusted to life in the South by being quiet and unobtrusive.

 

 

Here’s an example. One day the KKK came to Woodville and parked their gray old school bus on the highway at the city limits sign. By the way, White people could and for the most part still can, hate Black people without repercussions in the South. So, the bus sets up with its Confederate flags, nasty propaganda and racial smears on banners, and the mostly low-income White people dressed in their white robes were parading up and down and waving at cars as they drove by. I wondered how the coach reacted to that.

To find out, I falsely told him that a Black special forces serviceman had stopped by the bus and whipped six of the Klansmen into the ground. The coach turned gray and whispered, “Oh my god, I hope not. Oh, no.”

I fessed up and told him that that hadn’t really happened. But his reaction taught me that Blacks in the South knew how close they were to racial violence from threatened, insecure White men.

As the years have gone by, I’ve reflected more on the coach and his family—his family and mine were involved in the same Methodist choir—and the exceedingly narrow line they walked to stay above the conflict and off the target. To this day, it’s treacherous in small Southern towns for a Black person to excel beyond the achievements of the Whites around them.

Whiting: In Jar of Pennies, you describe the social dynamics of the town of Whitmire’s Black community, as well as Charles Henniker’s personal experience as a Black man. I’m curious as to how you developed the kind of insight that the following excerpt conveys:

As an unattached Black man, the neighbors watched his every move but didn’t speak. No family, no way to visit with him. They didn’t know about his San Augustine connections, though Henniker was sure that sooner or later the Black network would place him. People visited, they talked, they attended one another’s churches, they carried food to their own relatives. The network was very much alive, and he was curious how long it would take the network to make him out as old Momma Henniker’s grandson. Meanwhile, he’d need to start the conversations, if he wanted, and then he’d keep his distance until they knew him a lot better. A whole lot better. In the South, Black men stayed near their mothers for the most part, and their mothers and grandmothers were the social network. An unattached Black man was a nobody, feral and maybe dangerous. Until the network identified him, he was to be avoided.

Yearwood: I had some Black friends, as well as Black employees at my newspapers, and there was some overlap in those two categories. I also lived in a small town, where it was easy to hear about and observe the goings on of the people around me.

Whiting: This additional passage, involving Henniker’s thoughts, stood out to me as well:

How on earth could ignorant people get along with one another, he wondered. And then of course the obvious answer was, they couldn’t. Ignorance is intolerant. The only way to make a difference was to teach.

Tell us more about your notion of critical thinking, what it has to do with racial prejudice, and how you incorporate that concept into Jar of Pennies.

Yearwood: I wanted to use the antagonist in the story, a man with little education who has never been exposed to life beyond his small East Texas town, to show what happens when someone isn’t trained in critical thinking. For example, if he had possessed the skills to think through his actions, he wouldn’t have committed his crimes. The cost to him was so much greater than the reward, and if he’d been able to look at the situation critically, he would’ve recognized that.

Critical thinking means breaking down concepts into their basic parts, examining them, and seeing how they relate to each other. It’s also assessing how much of what you’ve been taught to believe is actually true.

As a high school teacher, Henniker is trying to teach kids how to think critically by asking them questions such as “Why do you have this opinion?” and “When you think something is good, why do you think it’s good?” and “When you think something is bad, what makes it bad?” He’s also getting them to question abstract concepts such as “What is love?”

Whiting: Why is it, in your opinion, that our country is lacking in critical thinkers?

Yearwood: The reason education stopped being about critical thinking was that in the 1920s someone decided it would be cheaper to base education on Henry Ford’s assembly line concept. That’s when kids began going from classroom to classroom, accumulating information, but not learning how to really think and process that information.

Class sizes are too large in most U.S. public schools to have the kind of in-depth, analytical discussions that foster critical thinking. With 30 kids per teacher, there’s not enough time to make sure each child is able to break down and assess information.

Then, in the late 1990s, former President George W. Bush was governor of Texas, and he decided that Texas needed to improve its education, so the state came up with a multiple-choice test to see if kids were getting a basic education. Bush  also designed an education policy that rewarded students who got high grades on those trivia tests. This drove education in Texas further from critical reasoning and more toward memorization of trivia. Students have now been graduating from that kind of education for 23 years, with almost no exposure to critical thinking skills—and if you don’t have critical thinking skills, the only thing you can do is react. You can’t think it out.

Whiting: What is happening today that most concerns you in terms of education, politics and race relations?

Yearwood: I’ve seen so many examples of ignorance in recent years that I don’t even know where to start, but Critical Race Theory (CRT) is as good a place as any. CRT has not only been misunderstood as something that’s trying to make White people feel bad, but it’s being used as a tool to whitewash history.

Curricula that include Black (and other minority) literature and history has nothing to do with how racial prejudice in American society should be changed. Nor does it insult American history. It does not point fingers at American heroes or sully the reputations of the courageous men who founded the country. But some so-called conservatives try to confuse Critical Race Theory with the hot-button topic of Black Lives Matter and that’s just ignorance.

Fundamentally, I believe we can only be better if we know who we are and where our weaknesses occur, and it is my deeply held belief that we must always try to do better, to be better, to seek the more perfect Union. Critical Race Theory is one tool that can help us see the truth about ourselves and about how we have always, throughout the thirteen score years of our existence, limped toward equality and freedom for all.

 

 

The recent rekindling of race-hating and fear-based separatism is another big concern for me. My White friends became less friendly with me after the rise of Trump. These people had degrees and had been exposed to more than just East Texas, but they maintained their ignorance and adjusted facts to suit their views, then looked for more evidence to support those views.

When these friends reacted to Trump’s race-baiting in a way that mimicked how my grandmother had long ago thought about people of color, I was deeply disturbed. Yet my suggestions that maybe Trump was lying, and maybe things weren’t like he was trying to make them feel, and maybe having honest wage earners crossing the border to do jobs that most Americans didn’t want to do was not such a bad idea, were met with contempt and our friendships were fractured over these differences.

I don’t think Trump changed the views of these friends. I think he gave them permission to openly resent persons of difference and rekindled long-harbored fears.

None of these friends considered for even a moment that their sense of privilege was unearned, unjustified, and not under threat. More to the point, they resented me questioning their viewpoints and became insulting and demeaning to me. Yet their fear was just as my senile grandmother’s had been long ago. This was another side-effect of the ignorance, caused in large part by one-sided, biased education and a lack of critical thinking in the South—and throughout the rest of the country as well. It has been a giant step backward.

These were friends with whom I had socialized on a weekly basis for more than 30 years, visited and picked up from the hospital, eaten food at their tables, praised their children and their social work, given appropriate exposure in my newspaper. I had helped them build their good names.

It’s also distressing that there’s no apparent effort to increase critical thinking and decrease ignorance; in Texas there’s a deep political and educational rut. Texas’s American history is broken up into “Revolution to 1876” and “1876 to the present.”

This distinction is made because, in 1876, during the post-Civil War period known as the Reconstruction Era, Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote over Rutherford B. Hayes in the presidential election but there was a dispute over contested electoral college votes.  A special commission was set up to decide the winner and a deal was struck (the Compromise of 1877) that allowed Hayes to be sworn in on the contingency that the federal government remove troops from Southern states that were enforcing such things as free elections.

 

(Above) Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States (1877-1881); (Below) the candidate Hayes defeated, Samuel J. Tilden.

 

This is the division point of history for Texas, because it signaled the end of Reconstruction in the South. From that point on, every politician became conservative. This event returned Texas to home rule and almost immediately things like poll taxes and tests for whether people were fit to vote were put into place—methods that prevented Blacks from voting.

To this day, Texas is the only state that flies its state flag at the same level as the American flag, which says something.

Whiting: There’s a lot going on in Jar of Pennies, both in the story itself and the messages underlying the story. What do you most want to leave your readers with?

Yearwood: Through Jar of Pennies, I show that social good arises when interracial interaction and respect happens. I show how racial prejudice hinders justice, and how racial stereotypes prevent change. I illustrate how racial prejudice and a White-privilege mindset undermines education. I illustrate how forming relationships based on principles of humanity instead of race leads to good. And I show how easy it is to let racial prejudice destroy relationships and social justice. But honestly, what I want most is for a reader to finish the book and say, “Wow. Great book.”

Whiting: Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you why you titled the book Jar of Pennies.

Yearwood: Well, I scattered “pennies” throughout the story—little 100-word short stories illustrating life in East Texas. I scattered them at random, just like you might find a penny on the sidewalk during a walk. So the book itself is a jar or collection of pennies. Also, the crucial evidence in the book that sends the murderer to the death chamber is a jar of pennies. You’ll find out how somewhere near the end.

 

Editor’s Note: John Yearwood is also the author of The Icarus Jump, The City and the Gate, The Gender of Fire and The Lie Detector App. Jar of Pennies is available on Amazon, among many other retailers.

 

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