Condoleezza Rice’s numerous African-American critics have labeled her as being everything from a female Uncle Tom to a sellout to an Aunt Jemima to a traitor. Although Rice’s triumphant book Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family does not concern itself with her years of service in the President George W. Bush administration that fueled much of this criticism, Rice does address how she has walked through the minefield of race relations and the seeming contradiction of being a black woman on the conservative side of the aisle. She portrays herself as a national security and defense hawk, a fiscal pragmatist and a social moderate. Her presentation reveals a woman who politically falls more within the boundaries of a moderate like Colin Powell than a black conservative.
The title and the dedication page of the book pay tribute to her parents, John and Angelena Rice, as well as her grandparents, the Rices and the Rays. But the book is mostly about Condi Rice and her journey from her childhood through the passing of her father at about the same time as the election of President George W. Bush in the year 2000.
Born in 1954, Rice spent her early years in Birmingham, Alabama, the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Sometimes called “Bombingham” because of the violence and unrest perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists groups, Birmingham of the late 1950s and early 1960s would seem a very volatile place to grow up. Yet Rice describes her early years as relatively calm and peaceful.
In the early chapters of the book, Rice goes into great detail about her parents’ influence over her. Her father, an educator and minister, instills in her a love of sports and social justice. Her mother, a prim and proper Southern woman, encourages her to excel at the piano, take up figure skating, and be “twice as good” as everyone else in order to succeed against the rigid obstacles of segregation. She names her child Condoleezza, taken from the Italian con dolcezza, meaning “with sweetness.”
The Rice family is part of the black middle class that is holding its own despite the ravages of segregation. It has often been pointed out that when such stable, middle-class black families moved out of all-black neighborhoods during the period of desegregation, those neighborhoods, such as the Titusville enclave where Rice spent part of her childhood, were hollowed out and that led to a decline in education and the creation of a permanent black underclass.
The Rice family took the Oprah Winfrey attitude that the best antidote to bigotry and racism was excellence and the value of education.
“My parents,” Rice writes, “believed that you could alter that equation trough education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for the ‘finer things’ in ‘their’ culture.”
The Rice family, like many in the black middle class, did not actively join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the marchers for social change, but rather rooted for them from the sidelines. Although they did not tolerate segregation any more than King and his followers, they used different methods of dealing with it. Rice gives a couple glowing examples of their approach. The first involved a Santa Claus at a downtown department store who refused to let her sit on his lap. The second dealt with a clerk in a dress shop who refused to let Rice use the fitting room to try on clothes. Her father took care of the first case with a harsh glare, and her mother handled the second dilemma by threatening to take her business elsewhere.
Given the backdrop of events occurring in the South in general and Birmingham in particular during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the book starts in a slow, almost prosaic manner, with Rice demonstrating that she had a normal childhood, sheltered from the most toxic aspects of an oppressive system.
The book really takes off and finds its wings when Rice begins to write about the bombings in Birmingham, one of which took the lives of four little girls who were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963. Rice knew one of the girls, Denise McNair. Through McNair and the bombing, Rice has a link early in her life with a major event in U.S. history, one that helped usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
She writes, “We found a way to live normally in highly abnormal circumstances. But there was no denying that Birmingham eclipsed every other big American city in the ugliness of its racism.”
Her father’s post-graduate studies and career in education eventually takes the Rice family to Denver, Colorado. Instead of attending all-black schools and living in an all-black neighborhood, Rice suddenly finds herself in an environment in which she is often one of very few blacks. She takes up figure skating while also continuing her piano playing, which she began at age three.
While attending the University of Denver, Rice abandons her plans of becoming a concert pianist and develops an interest in international politics, with an emphasis on the Soviet Union. Josef Korbel, the father of future Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was an instrumental professor in opening Rice’s eyes to a new field that became a part of her career.
Rice finished college and had a Master’s degree from Notre Dame by the time she was 20. She furthered her studies by taking her doctorate from Stanford University. On the fast track, she became a junior professor and later a full tenured professor at Stanford at a relatively young age. After a stint working for President George H.W. Bush’s national security team as a Soviet expert, and seeing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Rice returned to Stanford to become the youngest provost in its history.
Rice acknowledges in the book that affirmative action helped her to advance quickly up the ladder. But unlike many of the black conservatives who turned their backs on affirmative action, and in the eyes of some, turned their backs on the entire black community, Rice embraces the concept of affirmative action, as long as it is “done in what I consider to be the right way.”
With the issue of affirmative action and other matters, Rice often seems to go out of her way to demonstrate that, even as she has successfully navigated the halls of power in white America at its finest institutions and highest levels of government, she has not turned her back on the black community. She writes of her efforts to establish and raise money for the Center for a New Generation (CNG) in East Palo Alto, an area of abject poverty, despair and drive-by shootings. The CNG, designed to help prepare disadvantaged youths for school and life, was expanded to other areas and is now a part of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Throughout the book Rice exhibits a strong sensitivity toward and acknowledgment of the notion that “race is a constant factor in American life,” and a strong appreciation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. She says that America is not color blind and that race is ever present and like a birth defect. She explains that her father, a conservative Republican, was nevertheless attracted to “radicals” such as Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan, and invited them to speak at his university.
Rice explains that her father became a Republican because the Democrats who dominated Alabama during the Solid South era refused to allow him to register to vote, whereas a rare Republican clerk in the area said she would register him if he agreed to become a Republican. Rice admits she registered as a Democrat and voted for Jimmy Carter when casting her first presidential vote, but went over to the Reagan Republicans because of what she felt was Carter’s weak response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In addition to her “disgust with Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy and my attraction to Ronald Reagan’s worldview,” Rice said another reason she became a Republican was “I would rather be ignored than patronized.”
In some of the more touching moments of her adventure, Rice addresses her mother coming down with breast cancer at a relatively young age. After being free of the disease for a few years, Angelena Rice has the cancer return and spread to her brain. Rice’s mother is taken from her at age 61. Her father suffered from heart disease and diabetes. She loses him in late 2000, just when she is about to become President-elect George W. Bush’s national security advisor. The appointment is obviously a bittersweet moment for her.
The book ends at that point. Rice does not go into any details about her eight years in the Bush II administration, when she served as national security advisor and later as secretary of state. We understand that will be addressed in another book. This was an excellent book well worth reading. Hopefully the sequel will be too.
Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, Condoleezza Rice, Crown Archetype, 2010