An American Story"I wasn't worth a damn until I was thirty."Such bluntness is typical of An American Story, Debra Dickerson's inspiring new biography. The daughter of former sharecroppers, she literally started at the bottom of life and worked her way up to become the Air Force's chief of intelligence in Turkey and, later in her career, an award-winning journalist and commentator.
This is a rags to riches story, but it isn't as pretty as Cinderella. By writing An American Story, Dickerson has taken a mental evolutionary trip that few will ever dare to explore.
For all she's accomplished including a law degree from Harvard Dickerson went through much of her early life without a winner's attitude. "My hair was only one of the many things to be ashamed of. My big, fat nigger nose. Ugly, gnarled nigger toes." While in her 20s, she writes, "What I'd wanted most in life was not to be me: black, working class, female." Looking at the beautifully defiant face on the cover of the book, one would never know.
Dickerson's father, a former Marine who received no credit for his military accomplishments, ruled his St. Louis home resentfully, as if everyone present served under him in a strict military environment. She escaped the rigors of her home life through reading. "I wanted that special knowledge to which only whites had access," Dickerson says. That knowledge inspired her, but itdidn't come without a price. Her father would beat her simply for being curious.
Dickerson floundered until she joined the Air Force (following her father's military example), which built her self-confidence and gave her opportunities she would never have had in St. Louis. She became a Korean linguist and a distinguished Air Force intelligence officer during her 12-year career. After hitting the glass ceiling for women in the military, she applied to Harvard Law School and went on to build a successful career as a writer for such publications as the Washington Post, The New Republic, Slate, Essence, and Salon. An American Story is a fascinating chronicle of ambition; family anger; loneliness; double standards; poverty; racism; military inequity; drunkenness; rape; career burnout; sheer will; final success; and most of all, hope. For readers who can take the heat, Debra Dickerson is definitely in the kitchen.
Clay Stafford is a writer and filmmaker.