Reviewed by Tiffany M. Davis
TAGS: David N. Dinkins, Peter Knobler, Public Affairs Books, New York, civil rights, Democratic Party, United States Marine Corps, Howard University
“I see New York as a gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation--of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island, or Kennedy Airport, or on Greyhound buses bound for the Port Authority. In that spirit, I offer this fundamental pledge: I intend to be the mayor of all the people of New York.” -- David N. Dinkins
David N. Dinkins, the first African American governor of New York state, reflects on his extraordinary life in his autobiography A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic. From his early days in the Office of the CIty Clerk, to his eventual seat in Gracie Mansion, Dinkins discusses the good, the bad, and the ugly during his rise to become mayor.
The book is full of anecdotes that would make any history buff drool. Dinkins grew up in Trenton, New Jersey and served in the United States Marines Corp during a time when the armed forces were begrudgingly integrated. He was on friendly terms with several of the esteemed Tuskegee Airmen, and he himself received the Congressional Gold Medal along with the other African American Marines who trained at Montford Point during that time. He attended Howard University on the GI Bill, where he met his future wife. He graduated from Brooklyn Law School while working in his father-in-law’s liquor store; this, ironically, was his springboard into politics. He became a member of the influential George Washington Carver Democratic Club in Harlem, where he met Charles Rangel and Constance Baker Motley, and reconnected with Tuskegee Airman Percy Sutton. He helped found the Council of Black Elected Democrats of New York, along with Sutton and Shirley Chisolm. After a derailed run for Deputy Mayor of New York, Dinkins was appointed City Clerk and rose through the ranks of Borough President of Manhattan to finally become mayor of New York state, only to lose his reelection bid to Rudolph Giuliani in the wake of the Crown Heights riots. During his mayoral reign he entertained the likes of Harry Belafonte, Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, Jesse Jackson, Sr., and Al Sharpton.
Dinkins has a rich tapestry of memories upon which to draw for his autobiography, and he recalls them with just enough detail to leave the reader wanting to know more. There are so many memories, however, he is often only able to give a brief overview of certain political occurrences before he moves on to the next, seemingly out of time constraints. The narrative is disrupted by his personal recollections of his family. While those stories show a much softer side of Dinkins, they unfortunately do not blend seamlessly with the flow of the biography as a whole. Indeed, the personal stories stand out, as if an obvious attempt to show a more human side of Dinkins outside of his former political office. This is especially true when some of the recounts of his children’s exploits take place out of time of the event that Dinkins would be describing a the time (e.g., his daughter’s trip to study abroad in Liberia, and her subsequent return after a political upheaval there.). This reviewer would have liked to seen more of a direct relevance between his personal memories and his political ones.
There was an enjoyable lack of pretense when Dinkins talked about his run-ins with various political figures such as Mario Cuomo and even Percy Sutton; but even through his candor, there seems to be a sense that things were very much watered down, perhaps for the sake of palatability. Still, history buffs will be sure to enjoy Dinkins’ memoir of his place in New York history, and his continued seat at the table of African American civil rights.
Tiffany M. Davis is the Senior Editor of QBR: The Black Book Review. She has been published in anthologies and The Backlist newsletter, and has contributed her award-winning writing and editorial services to clients that include National Geographic, Sodexho, the American Society for Cell Biology, and Triple Crown Publications. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, she currently lives in Georgia.