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An American Story    by Debra J. Dickerson order for
American Story
by Debra J. Dickerson
Order:  USA  Can
Pantheon, 2000
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* * *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

An American Story is truly that, the story of a life that, while it soared above the average, still encompasses many different aspects of a common American cultural experience Not many of us get to experience such divergent lifestyles all in the space of forty years. This memoir of an African American woman deals with the author's past experiences and how each one affected her, both the good and the bad.

I found it an absorbing book. It begins at one of the pivotal moments in Ms. Dickerson's life when she was still fairly new in the Air Force. She sets the stage by describing her political conservatism when faced by what she saw as lax and defeatist living all around her. She backtracks to a history of her family's roots and then on to an account of her childhood. This mostly chronological tale is frequently interspersed with anecdotes to illustrate points or to shed further light on issues. While this hopping back and forth is confusing at times (I kept having to thumb back to re-read passages), it works in that it keeps the reader's interest throughout.

Dickerson's childhood was particularly riveting, especially the poignant descriptions of her father - the outward hatred and anger (and the repressed love and longing) she felt toward him. During this time, she started attending a mostly white school in the gifted program. Culture shock ensued, continuing in years of personal struggle about her own culture versus the one surrounding her six hours a day. A few years out of high school, she enlisted in the Air Force out of desperation with her aimless life. Although the Air Force regimen wasn't much different from what she had lived with under her father, the exposure to a variety of peoples still made a great impression on her, especially the fact that she was now surrounded by a culture of men. It was here that her ultra conservatism really began to take shape, moulded by the reinforcement of enlisted military personnel all around her.

Years later, a pivotal experience caused her to do a 180-degree turn in political outlook; she bought a lemon. This began an episode that opened her eyes to regular people. She saw that they were sometimes struggling against difficult odds, not just lying around taking free gifts from the government. Dickerson's car stopped running, almost as soon as it left the dealer's lot. The car company refused to take it back and held her responsible for making the payments. No matter whom she talked to (including lawyers), the answer was the same: shut up and pay up. She describes this moment vividly, as she details how her eyes were opened to the contempt that big business, government and the law profession had for little people. Needless to say, she didn't take this lying down, and after an intensive letter campaign, the car company capitulated. Soon after, Dickersen began to examine her conviction that the poor were poor because they chose to be that way, and wondered if she needed to redirect her life toward the goal of helping others.

This book is a triumph of determination over one's circumstances. Not only did the author have a very successful Air Force career but also went on to earn a bachelor's degree. She then attended Harvard, where she earned a law degree (a result of experience with lawyers during the car episode). Currently, Ms. Dickerson is focusing on writing - a love that grew within her at Harvard, where she wrote a column for a school publication. Some things from her childhood weren't easy to shake, such as her implied rejection of a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. This was due mainly to her father's insistence on enforced, brutal legalism, instead of living a Spirit-filled walk. This rebellion is never explicitly stated but Dickerson's later lifestyle shouts it out. Her anger at her father is another difficult issue, especially as he died not long after her parents separated. She reconciled some parts of her life, mainly her relationship with her brother, which had steadily deteriorated due to his belligerant and anti-social behaviour. Throughout the good and the bad, though, she is always brutally honest with herself.

I was completely immersed in this book, as I haven't been in a long time. This was partly because I identified strongly with Ms. Dickerson, even though I am white. I believe that many so-called racial issues are really class issues, and that it can sometimes be more difficult to overcome the effects of social status in life than the effects of skin color. Mostly it was because of the sheer power of the story itself and the gripping way in which it was related. Even so, I was left with a few unanswered questions. Why did the author state that she had only dated white men, but never explain why that was so? Was it on purpose, or did it just happen that way? Another question left open was whether she still had plans to help her community. This was not discussed at the end of the book. Also, I felt let down when she stated at the end that a very few events had been changed to provide continuity When I read a biography or memoir, I expect everything to be the absolute truth, and felt a tiny bit cheated after I read that. However, her honesty in admitting this fact and some unflattering personal anecdotes is to be commended.

I recommend this book to everyone, whatever his or her color or gender may be. I believe that anyone can find something to cheer about in these pages, even if they don't agree with everything Ms. Dickerson concludes as a result. Living life on her terms, there are no sacred cows - black elitism, white complacency, or politics in general. We can all use a dose of that perspective now and then.

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