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...
(The entire section is 697 words.)