Examining the images of ``the Negress'' and the ``good Negro'' as they have shaped the lives of several remarkable men and women, including Fulbright scholar and ``fag hag'' Dorothy Dean, poet Owen Dodson, and the author himself, this extended essay combines riveting subject matter with an original critical approach. According to New Yorker staff writer Als, the image of the Negress, of a woman of color living out a clichÇd life of poverty, self-abnegation, and Christian forbearance, has been a deforming and resilient presence in the American imagination for a long time. She is a familiar figure in popular culture. On a personal level, Als explores the history of (and his identification with) the Negress he knew most intimately, his mother, who donned a cap of smiling servitude when she emigrated to this country from Barbados and whose ``long, slow, public death was an advertisement for the life she had lived.'' Dorothy Dean, on the other hand, was a brilliant and difficult woman who graduated from Radcliffe in the 1950s, at a time when black women still had few choices. Dean attempted to subvert the image of the self-sacrificing Negress, but could never entirely escape it. Greatly gifted but filled with doubt, she came to New York, sampled and abandoned a series of professions, and surrounded herself with upper-class white gay men, fortifying her self-hatred with relationships based on sarcasm and gossip. Als also writes about the sexual relationship he had from ages 15 to 19 with the poet Owen Dodson, who was older than his mother ``but just as committed to the experience of pain.'' Dodson sacrificed his wit on the page for the acceptable oppressed voice of the New (and publishable) Negro and drank himself into a self- destructive old age. What makes this debut book so compelling is the author's ability to combine extreme honesty with sharp critical discourse, his willingness to explore the shadows of complex lives, including his own, that challenge clichÇs about race and gender without ever sacrificing intellectual rigor.