Dickerson, Debra J.

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Debra J. Dickerson



Debra Dickerson is the living embodiment of the American Dream. Born and raised in the ghetto, her life was distinguished by lacks—lack of money, lack of role models, lack of hope. Despite these odds, Dickerson not only survived, but thrived—at the Pentagon, in Harvard Law School, and as a prominent writer and thinker. Though she reached the top through hard work, luck, and a lot of pluck, she never forgot where she came from. "There was no way I could turn my back on my birth class," she wrote on her Debra Dickerson Web site. "My unique perspective keeps me from straying too far into self-congratulation and never lets me forget that though my belly is full, that even though society treats me with respect, my bus driver and my doorman face daily dehumanization."

Escaped Brutal Childhood through Books

Born in 1959, Debra J. Dickerson was raised in a family of six siblings in the all-black ghettoes of northern St. Louis. Her parents were ex-sharecroppers who had migrated to Missouri to escape the racial oppression of their native South. Her father, an ex-Marine and junk salesman, and her mother, a domestic worker and waitress, raised their children in a household run by the convictions of the Southern Baptist church. Discipline, cleanliness, and godliness were the driving values. Her father, however, took the tenet of "spare the rod, spoil the child" too far and Dickerson suffered severe beatings at his hands. When she was 12, her mother found the courage to take the children and move away. Dickerson held up her mother as "the most powerful [example] I know of a dignified life righteously, courageously, unflinchingly lived under horrendous circumstances," as she wrote on her Web site.

Dickerson found solace from her chaotic life in books. "I just read everything, anything I could get my hands on," she noted on her Web site. "The only time I wasn't reading was when I was asleep but even then I slept with books the way other girls slept with dolls." Her literary appetite nourished her intellect and earned her admission to a privileged school for talented children. Nonetheless, she suffered from her family's deeply entrenched belief that no black child could amount to much. "Moving up North was their entire plan for us," she recalled to Frontpage Magazine. "Just not picking cotton. Just not having to step off the sidewalk when whites passed. They had no conception that their children really could be anything they desired and worked hard enough for." When she told her father that she wanted to become a lawyer, he laughed in her face.

After graduating in the top of her class and acing college entrance exams, Dickerson was inundated with scholarship offers from colleges including Duke and Bryn Mawr but, because of what she has called her family's "philosophy of insignificance," Dickerson was too intimidated to even speak with the admissions counselors. Instead she began working as a waitress and enrolled in community college. Six weeks before graduating with a 3.9 G.P.A., Dickerson dropped out. "I suppose I don't think I deserved official recognition, not even when I knew I'd earned it," she explained on her Web site. "I didn't want to join any club that would have me as a member." However, Dickerson would soon join a club that would turn her life around.

Transformed from Military Officer to Ivy Leaguer

In 1980, Dickerson joined the U.S. Air Force and it changed her life. "That was the place that told me I could, and should, aspire to anything," she told Frontpage Magazine. She applied the traits of hard work and discipline that she learned as a child, added her formidable intellect, and found herself sailing through a successful military career. After training as a Korean linguist, she was sent to Osan Air Base in South Korea. While serving fulltime, she took courses with the University of Maryland, earning an undergraduate degree in government and politics in 1984. Next, she attended officer training school where she was appointed Wing Commander in charge of 900 officer trainees.

After receiving a commission as a second lieutenant, Dickerson was posted in Texas where she continued her education, earning a master's degree in international relations from St. Mary's University. In 1989, she was promoted to captain and sent to Turkey as chief of intelligence for the Ankara Air Station. Her next post was as an intelligence officer at the Pentagon where she remained until resigning in 1992. She later cited a culture of sexism as the reason. "Successful military women were routinely undermined," she remarked on her Web site. "The real issue, however, is the underlying belief that women just don't belong in certain situations, situations that always involve cream of the crop military jobs. I knew there was no unlimited future for me in the service and that's mainly why I left."

Dickerson applied to and was accepted into Harvard Law School's class of 1995. At Harvard, she struggled to find her place intellectually. She had begun to form distinct views on race, racism, and the black experience. Education and the military had taken her a long way from her impoverished childhood and she was interested in the connections and disconnections between her Ivy League life and her childhood ghetto life. She joined the Black Law Students' Association and left-thinking study groups, but found that they offered little tolerance for her independent thinking. She finally found her outlet in writing and began penning a column for the Harvard Law Record. It was a revelation. "I totally internalized the belief that a little girl from the ghetto could not be a writer," she told Publishers Weekly. Yet, Dickerson had finally found her calling.

Found Success as a Writer on Race

Soon after she graduated from Harvard, Dickerson's 16-year-old nephew was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting. The senseless crime, committed by a black man in her nephew's impoverished neighborhood, propelled her to analyze the political and cultural implications of the crime, as well as her personal anger and sadness. The result, "Who Shot Johnny," published in the New Republic in 1986, won a Best American Essay award and launched Dickerson's writing career. She went on to write for publications including the Washington Times, New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. She served as a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and as a regular contributor to the on-line publications Beliefnet.com and Salon.com.

At a Glance …

Born in 1959, in St. Louis, MO; married Scott Boyd Knox, 1999; children: two. Education: University of Maryland, BA, government and politics, 1984; St. Mary's University, MA, international relations, 1988; Harvard Law School, JD, 1995. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1980-92.


Freelance writer, 1986—; Salon.com, national correspondent; Beliefnet.com, columnist; U.S. News & World Report, senior editor.


Brighter Choice Charter Schools, Albany, NY, member, Board of Trustees.


The New America Foundation Fellowship, 2000; New York Times, Notable Book of the Year, 2000; Amazon.com, Editor's Choice for Memoirs, 2000; Salon.com, Top Five Non-Fiction Books of the Year, 2000.


Home—Albany, NY.

In 2000, Dickerson published An American Story, an astonishing memoir that documented her rise from the ghetto to Harvard. The book garnered critical acclaim and became a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." In it, Dickerson laid bare the harsh realities of her childhood, her family, and her struggle to find her own voice. In doing she took a cold, hard look at race and the role it played in her life. The New York Times Book Review noted, "It is a startling thing to hear an American speak as frankly and un-self-servingly about race as Dickerson does." The issue of race in Dickerson's life deepened when she married a white architect, settled down to a comfortable middle-class in the mostly white suburbs, and bore two very pale-skinned children. She began to write more extensively on race issues, becoming a well-known essayist and a fellow at the New American Foundation, an organization dedicated to encouraging new public thinkers.

By 2004, Dickerson had isolated what she believed was the root of many of the problems African Americans faced and published her theory in The End of Blackness. The book extolled African Americans to stop focusing on a black/white dichotomy and get on with the business of living as an American period. "Race is a construct," she told the Albany Union Times. "Being a construct, it is neither biology nor destiny; you can set it down or walk away from it, or reshape it into anything you want it to be." The controversy that ensued thrust Dickerson into the limelight as an important modern thinker on race. Critics on all sides passionately engaged her in debate. As a women who stands in a very unique position with one foot in her hard-luck past and another in her hard-won future, she has accepted this dialogue gladly. As she said on her Web site, her life "makes me one of the chosen few who can act as a bridge between the working class and the mainstream." She does so with pen clutched bravely in hand.

Selected writings


An American Story, Pantheon Books, 2000.

The End of Blackness, Pantheon Books, 2004.



Albany Times Union (Albany, NY), January 18, 2004, p. J1.

Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2000, p. 182.


Debra Dickerson,www.debradickerson.com (February 2, 2007).

"The End of Blackness," Frontpage Magazine,www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=12273 (February 2, 2007).

"The Fire Inside," New York Times Book Review,www.nytimes.com/books/00/10/08/reviews/001008.08scottt.html (February 2, 2007).

                                                                —Candace LaBalle

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