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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

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...

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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 was still required to ride in the back of city buses and was forbidden from eating in most restaurants and from playing on public tennis courts, the State Department was sponsoring her tour as part of an effort to convince the rest of the world of the health of American race relations. Yet she also believed that, though the pace was too slow, race relations were improving in the United States and that her presence on the tour was a small force for the good, both in the United States and worldwide.

Though both conservatives and progressives could find Gibson an independent and even prickly person at times, one of the most appealing features of the book is the generosity of spirit that shines through it. Gibson goes out of her way to describe the assistance she received from numerous sports enthusiasts, both African American and white, who at critical times provided coaching, counsel, and moral and financial support—partly out of simple friendship and a desire to help and partly in the hope of developing a player with the stature to challenge the tacit color line. Among these were the great boxer “Sugar Ray” Robinson and his wife Edna, who provided financial help and encouragement early in Gibson’s career, and tennis great Alice Marble, who in 1950 wrote a forceful editorial in American Lawn Tennis supporting Gibson’s right to play for the national championship at Forest Hills.

Her generosity extends further. Though she includes numerous anecdotes in which she herself is shown as wrong or momentarily foolish, no named person is subjected to even mild criticism or hostility. She describes severe whippings at the hands of her father but immediately claims that she fully deserved them and profited from them and that she loves her father deeply. Everyone—journalists, tennis opponents and officials, the duchess of Kent and the queen of England—is unfailingly represented as kind and gracious.

An incidental feature of the book is the picture it provides of the life-style of a sports star in the 1950’s. Her tennis fame had brought her a job as consultant with a sporting goods firm, for which she received a mere seventy-five dollars a month. Though thousands were attending her matches and tournaments, she typically received only expenses, and these were calculated on the unbelievably parsimonious scale, even for 1958, of about fifteen dollars a day to cover meals, room, and incidentals. Needless to say, Gibson stayed with friends or relatives at every opportunity.

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