Prominent Black Essayist Says She Is ‘Homeless’

Plus, details about plans for Lena Horne's funeral.

Debra Dickerson
Debra Dickerson

Debra J. Dickerson, the freelance essayist and author who gained prominence in 2007 by helping to ignite the debate over whether Barack Obama was “black enough,” is telling readers of her blog that she is now “homeless.”

“I can’t know why any random street person is destitute but I know why I am: my divorce,” she wrote. “Five and a half years of litigation later (we were only married for five) I’ve lost everything. My career. My health. My home. My possessions. Our beloved cat and my very sense of self. Now, most likely, my kids since I can’t provide a home for them. But the only reason I can’t is because family court never ends, not as long as one of the parties doesn’t want it to. When we separated, all we had were two kids and debt. Yet the battle rages on and it has defeated me. I stopped counting the attorneys’ fees at the $100,000 mark and I rarely bother to open my mail since it’s all from collection agencies. I’m 51. I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying my unbelievably generous, foolish friends.”

Reached at the Albany, N.Y., hotel where she and her two children are staying until, she said, they are put out, Dickerson told Journal-isms, “I don’t really have a plan” and that the ultimate culprit is a family court system that needs reform. “This is going on all over the country. If there is one parent who isn’t done with the other parent. . . . everybody can agree that 5 1/2 years is too long. In our case it’s about custody, but in other cases it is money problems” or other issues.

A law school graduate, she said she revealed her circumstances on her blog, because “I can’t believe this is happening.”

She wrote, “I’m also writing this to see if I can regain the indescribable satisfaction that my craft used to bring me. The poor are often written about but rarely do they, we, get to speak for themselves. I’ll be using this blog to do just that. I won’t be chronicling my legal battle but rather how I go about holding my family together through this nightmare. Most of all, I’ll be writing about becoming Debra again. I’ve been whittled down to either ‘the ‘petitioner,’ ‘the respondent’ or Mom. Never Debra. I want her back again.

“I wrote my way out of a difficult life once. I’ll do it again.”

According to court records in Albany, Dickerson sued Scott B. Knox for divorce and a settlement was reached on Feb. 14, 2006. The Albany charter school she helped initiate said her two children attend, and that she remains on its board.

Mother Jones magazine described Dickerson as a “professional iconoclast” who was also a a former intelligence officer in the US Air Force.

Random House said she “was educated at the University of Maryland, St. Mary’s University, and Harvard Law School. She has been both a senior editor and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, and her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Slate, the Village Voice, and Essence. She is the author of “The End of Blackness” and “An American Story.” She also taught journalism at the State University of New York at Albany.

Dickerson argued in 2004’s “The End of Blackness” that “the old definitions of black and white, on a cultural level, aren’t the same as they were 40, 30, or even 20 years ago, and blacks have to reexamine how to frame the current issues facing a society that still has major racial fault lines even as it undergoes significant demographic changes,” in the words of reviewer Emru Townsend.

In a January 2007 Salon piece, Dickerson wrote that Obama wasn’t “black.” “Black, in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both ‘black’ as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.”

Dickerson may be reached at debra (at)

Debra Dickerson, “Don’t be black on my account,” A black mother’s gift to her biracial children (2007).