An American Story

Debra J. Dickerson, one of six children in a family dominated by an ex-Marine father, was born in 1959 and grew up in a north St. Louis ghetto. An unusually bright child, she convinced her family to allow her to attend a school for gifted children in another part of the city. Thus from the age of nine she moved between two worlds: one poor, black, undistinguished for the most part, but possessed of a certain cohesion and camaraderie; the other mostly white, better endowed, but to this black girl alien and often hostile. Intellectually curious and socially sensitive, she came to see that she did not fit into either world.

Her school put her on a track to success in the world, but she did not always stay on that track. With a chance to go to virtually any college or university, she enrolled in a community college; before her class graduated, she joined the United States Air Force. While anything but an unmixed blessing, her military career, for which her ignorant and sometimes brutal father had prepared her well, opened up new opportunities. Eventually she gravitated to, and graduated from, Harvard Law School. But her relationships with both Caucasians and African Americans remained uneasy as she struggled to understand her own complex nature, achieve social equilibrium, and find a truly worthwhile vocation. Throughout the difficult process of her maturation, her best friend remained her mother, a simple, unsophisticated woman of admirable integrity.

Dickerson is a prickly, uncompromising woman. Her account of her first thirty-five years may sometimes strike the reader as self-contradictory, but An American Story is replete with frank revelations of the various selves she has discovered and with marvelously pungent descriptions.