I Always Wanted to Be Somebody Essay - Critical Context

Althea Gibson

Critical Context

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.