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Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be

by Valerie Graves

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61775-493-7
Publisher: Open Lens/Akashic

A pioneer in multicultural advertising recounts her life surmounting the odds of being African-American and female in a predominantly white male business arena.

A precocious girl with big dreams, Graves grew up in a Michigan public housing project on the shores of Pontiac’s polluted Crystal Lake. The daughter of a smart, single mother and an errant father, the author, though a self-proclaimed “mouthy show-off,” embraced her tenacity and youthful intelligence and excelled throughout grade school with a natural talent for public speaking. Life soon intervened, however, and, playing out against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots, the “disgrace” of teenage motherhood temporarily derailed Graves’ academic potential. Yet her spirit to exceed eventually won out with college enrollment and an adventuresome and career-defining ascent in the largely white male–dominated world of creative advertising. Her adulthood was clearly shaped by a challenging past, and Graves harnessed the advantages of her hardscrabble youth and channeled that energy and experience into a noteworthy career, theater work, marriage, and watching her son achieve sobriety. The author narrates her unconventional journey with unabashed pride and fortitude and shares both positive and negative anecdotes, as with her unsurprising termination after calling herself the “token” black employee during an ad agency meeting full of “anxious, driven white men seeking money and power of every sort.” Achieving multiple accolades and even collaborating with Bill Clinton, Graves established herself as a fierce force in the advertising field and a greatly admired role model for black professionals establishing themselves in American business. In a moving book steeped in perseverance and empowering determination, the author fully embodies the challenges of her culture and those of being a motivated businesswoman. She concludes with optimistic anticipation for a truly “postracial America” where society has moved beyond skin color, “when race doesn’t determine who lives next door.”

Optimistic and galvanizing, Graves’ message of hope and hard work is timely and applicable.