Authors: Debra J. Dickerson
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ONE: Family History
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TWO: Whistling Women
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THREE: Airman Dickerson
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FOUR: Beginning Again
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FIVE: It All Comes Together
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SIX: Full Circle
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SEVEN: Breaking Ranks
For my hero, my heart. My mother
For the father I wished I'd known
For the United States Air Forceâit aimed me high and let me go
It was 1983, I was twenty-four years old and all alone in the world. I had five siblings, a mother, more relatives than a Kennedy, and was a member of the United States Air Force. But I was alone, though I did not yet know it.
I “knew” some other things, however. I knew that people were poor by choice. I knew that the civil rights movement had ended racism and inequality. I knew that hard work was all that was required for a successful, stable life. Those blacks who came of age after the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which I knew had ended discrimination) but who were still marginalized were losers for whom I need feel neither compassion nor a sense of connection. I was not “black”; I was a “human being” who was looking forward to voting for Ronald Reagan in the next election. I had no use for the alcoholics, the unwed mothers, the high school dropouts of my black working-class childhood and, after a youth spent in self-effacing, Southern Baptist misogynist silence, had become a woman with the courage to say all of that and oh so much more.
By my third of what would be five and a half years enlisted in the Air Force, coming home was a torment. Black north St. Louis was a city frozen in time, a bad time. Back home, I bought gas for my rental car from wary-eyed attendants huddled behind four inches of bulletproof glass and chicken wire. They were barely audible through the tiny, skinnier-than-shotgun-barrel-sized slot allotted for communication that I had to bend over double to yell through. I ate rib tip sandwiches at ghetto greasy spoons with ripped thrift-store furniture. Their names were usually a homespun combination of initials like E&J's Bar B Q or T&P's Deluxe, their restaurant inspection stickers likely gray market. At night, my sisters and I went to cheesy clubs with carpet tacked to the walls and overflowing toilets in bathrooms filled with dope smoke and women so overdressed they might have been attending a potentate's diamond jubilee. There would be one tough waitress for every fifty patrons; she'd rather curse you out than take your order because she knew that black people didn't tip. We used to sneak into those same clubs when we were teenagers, where unsmiling men wearing black shades at midnight would snarl “Open yo purse!” at the door so they could check for guns. Even so, we often had to duck for cover behind overturned tables when the shooting began. It seemed an adventure back then in the bell-bottomed seventies, when no one aimed to kill.
But in the parallel universe of my posting in Monterey, California, I was seeing my first ocean, tasting my first bagel, discovering room service and skycaps. I was living in a world where the oddballs were those who
live by the rules and I was falling in love with a man whose white skin and New England twang were a comfort to me. I looked at that skin and saw safety, dignity, progress. My white boyfriend could not believe discrimination and failure really existed, and when I was with him, neither could I. But back in St. Louis, no matter when I visited, everyone always seemed to be swirling powerlessly through a never-ending cycle of layoffs, plant closings, Section 8 waiting lists, and child support that never came; same struggles, different day. It all seemed so willfully pointless.
Wasn't it obvious that education was the way out of all this? It had been for me. My two and a half years of college had recruiters hounding me and earned me two stripes upon enlistingâthe rank, responsibilities, and pay of an E-3 airman first class rather than the E-1 airman mere high school graduates were awarded. Those credits put me two years ahead of the game in the highly competitive U.S. Air Force and made me stand out from the first day of basic training. After only three years, I'd added forty or so college credits to my previous total, was earning a salary few of them could ever hope for, and was en route to becoming an Air Force officer with a master's degree, a triple A credit rating, and the approval of a grateful nation. It still wasn't too late for them to improve themselves through education, but most of my homies did little besides graduate from their substandard high schools and prove repeatedly how fertile they were without being able to sustain a healthy, long-term relationship. Wasn't it clear that hard work, savings, health, home, and auto insurance were the answers? Babies postwedlock rather than in the doomed, antediluvian hope that they will cause wedlock? Their willfully poor judgment was a source of endless exasperation to me. My eyes would narrow evilly when I spied new microwaves, new floor-model TVs and VCRs in every room of a household teetering on the brink of eviction (and which also owed me money). I wouldn't own any of those appliances until after 1986 when I was an officer and, finally, middle class; my money went for my education and to bail family members out of the disaster du jour. I took self-righteous comfort in the eyeball-rolling that commenced every time I passed on half-price Gucci bags hot from a “trunk sale.” I knew they thought me a spoilsport who wouldn't know a good time if it gave me a free Gucci bag. But I also knew the irony of pulling WIC paperwork from a designer bag was utterly lost on them.
I could never relax when home from the service because I was always anticipating the next awkward moment. I would answer folks' phones in an attempt to be helpful: how was I to know they were screening for bill collectors? What a strain it was not to roll my eyes when an answering machine identified the household as “United Office Support Systems” or some such nonsense. I'd have to hightail it to the bathroom while a homegirl returned the call in her best fake “white” voice and verified the employment of her ne'er-do-well “husband.” I finally learned not to answer the phone, that all calls are screened in such households. Papering over iffy work histories in this manner seemed much more difficult to me than simply working diligently. And, of course, working diligently was all that was required for getting ahead in life.
I held my tongue but my disapproval was unmistakable. I would sneer inwardly at the latest on-the-job “back injury” lawsuit being waged by the neighbor who still managed to be the last man off the dance floor. I would struggle not to suck my teeth at someone's pregnant granddaughter waddling by to rejoin the jobless boyfriend she was cohabiting with in the basement, always biting my lip to keep from screaming from the depths of my soul, “Girl, why are you pregnant again?”
When you open the refrigerator in many black working-class homes, you see everything in twos and threesâmultiple OJ cartons, four different brands of beer, three kinds of luncheon meatâeach truculently labeled with the name of some grown person come back to sponge off hardworking parents or grandparents but too selfish to share. When you eat in one, you may get sandwiches made with meat kept refrigerated outside on winter windowsills in homes without electricity. Perhaps you'll take a 'ho bath in sinks with water heated in electric woks in homes without gas. You can ride around downtown St. Louis at 11:37
jetlagged from an international flight while a grim-faced sibling hand-delivers utility payments just minutes short of cutoff. Then, you can endure a ride home elongated by half an hour because of all the unincorporated, vicious little municipalities that target blacks and that she and her expired license plates must take the long way around.
One Christmas, as I visited with a friend and her in-laws, I watched as her two grown sisters-in-law, both of whom had managed to supply themselves with illegitimate children but no homes of their own, entertained their babies' different gift-bearing fathers seriatim. A “father” would appear bearing something useless for the child he'd barely seen all year, the appropriate child would be peeled from its half siblings (all with Venusian names) and duly presented for an awkward moment of head-patting from the father, incomprehension and tears from the child, and fuming around the edges from the long-discarded mother. One of these dads had so many kids around town (four named “Jr.”), I imagined he earned Frequent Father Miles on all the major holidays. It took all I had not to switch Shontay for Kiwansha to see if “Dad” could tell the difference.
Being back home gave me a headache, as if I were squinting at life there through microscope glasses. So, when home from the Air Force in the 1980s, I did the same thing I'd done growing up there in the 1970s. I parked myself on the couch at either my mother's or one of my sisters' and stayed there until it was time to return to the airport. Except for having to trade insults with my useless brother, I mostly managed to avoid north St. Louis in all its downtrodden entirety. I might as well have been visiting a stranger's hometown.
The Air Force was the only place where I was comfortable. Six months here, eighteen there, a whole planet to choose from in the amorphous maw of the gargantuan American military. I wasn't black anymore, I was blue, Air Force blue, and my name was “Airman,” just like the thousands of folks surrounding me. In the Air Force there was order, there were rules, there was a yellow brick road to advancement and any number of people not only willing to show me the way but inextricably bound to my personal and professional development. It takes a whole lot of folks pulling together to launch just one F-15; no one can fall by the wayside. And in the military, it's “up or out”; if you don't progress, you have to leave. But it's not easy to fail to progress; if you can't handle one career field, there's no stigma attached to choosing another more suited to your talents. All military jobs need doing, and a staff sergeant who sprays for bugs is treated no differently than a multilingual one who translates documents from foreign governments.
The military let me reinvent myself every time I changed stations. When I enlisted on March 10, 1980, just shy of my twenty-first birthday, I was a clinically depressed, college dropout, binge-eating insomniac who literally wished she were dead. When I graduated from basic training six weeks later, I was a swaggering little Pattonette. What I'd wanted most in life was not to be me: black, working class, female, and therefore a social weakling destined for a life of pointless drudgery while tormented by vague yearnings I was too browbeaten to give full volume to. The Air Force had let me escape both my social fate and my self-imposed limitations. With every move over the twelve years I spent in the military (six and a half as an officer), I'd become a new and improved Debra Dickerson: I went from wallflower to butch hard-partier and jock, to glamorous vamp and quiet college girl, to radical, driven social reformer, to budding artist.
But I didn't know any of that was going to happen when I joined. I didn't know that from day one I would be pushed, cajoled, praised, and punished into high achievement. Enlisting had been my way of giving up. I was accepting my pink collar and place at the end of the line. Bitterly, I'd thought, If I'm going to type, might as well do it in another time zone. At the same time, though, some tiny, desperate part of me was daring the Air Force to make something of me.
Joining up wasn't my first lurch toward a better future, though; the first would have been attending community college, which I did for a year and a half after graduating from high school. Having gone to a gifted grade school, I was thrown back into a regular high school in 1973. There was no public gifted one; families of means paid for their progeny to attend Country Day or Mary Institute, the all-boy and all-girl (and nearly all-white) private high schools of choice. My parents, on the other hand, were too busy struggling to keep the family afloat to give much thought to the relative merits of different high schools, and too poor to pay tuition when there was free schooling to be had. Unsophisticated and overburdened, they had to settle for that which the government provided.
My parents were manual laborers, neither of whom had gone to high school, neither of whom assumed my lot would much surpass theirs. It was enough for them that I accomplish that, a high school diploma, and maybe learn to type as an added bonus so I could have a “sit-down” job and keep my hands clean. Sharecroppers weaned in the Depression and recently migrated from Mississippi and Tennessee, they had no conception that the American Dream could be mine. Even though I grew up in a period of great political and social upheaval, little of it filtered through to us. I wasn't raised to fight the power. I was raised to wait patiently for my reward in the Great By-and-by, that great gettin up mornin when the dead in Christ gon rise, when the lion gon lie down with the lamb and when Jesus gon call His faithful servants home. Well done, good an faithful servant, He gon say. Well done.
Between that day and this one, stoicism, the occasional backyard barbecue, and the Old Testament were supposed to tide me over. My love of books was tolerated in our no-nonsense household, but not encouraged. Much more emphasis was placed on the five Dickerson girls learning the womanly, God-fearing arts of housekeeping and child-rearing. The manual labor jobs I was destined for would no doubt be self-explanatory.
No one could have foretold the havoc that the inherent contradictions between the way of life my parents brought with them from the South and the way of life open to us up North would wreak on our family. I've spent my whole life trying to avail myself of what's good about one way without closing the door on the other. After forty years, I've just about got it figured out. All that's best and worst about me derives from the fact that I'm a daughter of the Great Migration.
The Great Migration: 5 million African-Americans over thirty years fleeing northward, the greatest mass migration in American history. Modern-day chattel, taxed but unrepresented, jailed as a matter of public policy, raped but loving their offspring no less, saying “No, thank you, Mistah Charlie” to grim reality and “Now! goddammit it” to a wild-eyed dream, even when it cost them their lives. The people famous for making a way out of no way.
Eyes on the future, scared to hope but terrified to stand still. Unsure and often self-hating, but maddeningly prodded by the intuition that maybe, just maybe, there's more to life than either the plantation, the Black Belt, the inner city, the welfare rolls, or the cellblock. Escape route learned by heart and secreted there, but feisty and loudmouthed in spite of themselves. Like Harriet Tubman, who, on the day she planned to escape, looked her master in the eye and saucily sang: “Good-bye, I'm goin fer to leave you.” Anchored in and strengthened by the past and by family, but firmly enough so as to use it as a dependable, two-way springboard: out into the wider world in search of material progress but back again each evening into the bosom of generations.