I Always Wanted to Be Somebody can be read simply as an engaging account of a lively childhood and exciting career in sports. The language is informal and, especially in the first two chapters, pleasantly colloquial though never vulgar. The narrative is straightforward and concrete, with numerous well-told incidents.
Yet it is also a book with much more to offer. Running through the book is the tension between a strong, unusual personality determined to do things her own way and the circumstances and social forces with which she had to deal—social forces that were frequently in conflict among themselves. Her determination to be independent showed itself first in her indifference to school and her resistance to parental discipline. Later, when she worked hard and enthusiastically within the system, she found that her scope was limited by legal segregation, by unspoken custom, and by the arbitrary decisions of people in power. While working as a physical education instructor in Missouri, for example, she was part of a group of African-American faculty members who were denied use of a bowling alley even in the morning, because the white clients who used it in the afternoon might be offended.
Once she had achieved success in tennis, Gibson was subjected to demands from liberals and African-American groups that she, in effect, make her career a part of the growing Civil Rights movement. Though she sympathized wholly with that movement and frequently spoke and acted on its behalf, she resented what she saw as unreasonable demands that she shape her life and tailor her life-style in the interests of the movement. It was not lost on her that, while in many parts of the country she...
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In several ways, Gibson is not typical of subjects of book-length biographies. While biographies and autobiographies of sports figures are common, books about women athletes are less so. African-American boxers and baseball, basketball, and football players are familiar, but African-American tennis players (and golfers) are not. It is healthy to have books that counter this tendency to stereotype athletes by race.
Gibson’s autobiography is very much a part of its time, a circumstance that is perhaps in some minor ways a limitation but is much more significantly a strength. Some readers may be bothered by the consistent use of “Negro” for “African American,” but the pleasantly informal language is part of the personality of the book and otherwise should cause no problems. The values that the book implies are those of integration and traditional American individualism; pride in African-American ethnicity is never an issue. The story of the breaking of the color line in American sports is one of the central chapters in the Civil Rights movement, and Gibson’s autobiography is a primary source for that story. In its general flavor and in countless details, Gibson’s writing provides an authentic and balanced verbal representation of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Apart from race and even from sports, however, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody is an appealing story of a person who had an irregular childhood, who always refused to conform to conventional images of what she should be, but who nevertheless insisted on becoming not only a successful person but also a superbly decent one. Many young readers will be able to identify with this story more readily than with more conventional biographies.