Palo Alto Weekly

- November 5, 2010

Extraordinary, ordinary people

Condoleezza Rice's loving memoir of her parents traces family values against the backdrop of segregation

by Sue Dremann

"Extraordinary, Ordinary People" by Condoleezza Rice; Crown Archtype, New York; 342 pp.; $27

One of the defining moments in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's childhood came during a visit to Santa Claus when she was about 5 years old. Living in Birmingham, Ala., known as the most segregated big city in America in the 1950s and early 1960s, Rice almost didn't get a seat on Santa's lap because she is black, she wrote in her autobiography/homage to her parents, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People."

"The Santa in question had been putting the white kids on his knee and holding the black children away from him, keeping them standing," she recalled.

But her father, John W. Rice Jr., gave his daughter a firm lesson that day in values that guided the rest of her life: No matter how society strives to pigeonhole you, you're still as worthy as everyone else.

"If he does that to Condoleezza," her father told Rice's mother, "I'm going to pull all of that stuff off him and expose him as just another cracker."

Rice did sit on Santa's lap, but she never forgot how racially charged that moment felt, she said.

Rice's autobiography is an extraordinary tale, not only of race but also of hope, determination and parent-and-child devotion.

Most of all, it is the story of how a little black girl from the Jim Crow South was taught to become arguably the most powerful woman in the country.

Written in clean, direct prose, the book is a fast-paced read most of the way through.

The peek into Rice's characteristically private life through her family relationships and her childhood is fascinating and inspiring.

She is the first to say that her success has much to do with her upbringing, although intelligence and her extraordinary drive played major roles in her success.

The young Condoleezza would arise at 4:30 a.m. each day to practice ice skating before going to school, attend classes at the University of Denver and high school concurrently (at age 15), practice the piano, study, skate again and practice the piano again before bedtime.

Rice's parents — John, a minister and teacher, and Angelena, a teacher who instilled a love of music in her daughter — doted on their only child. Her name, meaning "with sweetness," was derived from a musical notation, con dolcezza.

Rice's parents sacrificed buying a home in order to give her a rich life and good education, and she was raised in a middle-class neighborhood where parents sought to shelter their children from the surrounding segregation.

But inevitably, that hatred seeped in.

Bitter reminders of America's apartheid were handed to the young Rice, even when attempting to take part in the most basic, American cultural experiences.

In one incident, the family went out to enjoy dinner at a newly integrated hamburger stand. But when Rice bit into her hamburger, she discovered the white chef had deliberately filled the bun with nothing but onions.

Indelible images of life in "Bombingham" are processed through a child's eyes: Incendiary devices were thrown into neighbors' homes; fathers and uncles sat on porches with shot guns or guarded entrances to neighborhood streets to keep out white "night riders" bent on terrorism.

The massive explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was two miles away, sounded as though it was next door. Rice recalls the funerals of four little girls killed in the 1963 blast, two who were her playmates.

In her roles as national security advisor and secretary of state, Rice would take those images with her. She would later liken the early racist violence she experienced in the South to terrorist bombings, complete with shrapnel and nails.

Rice became a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — because of her experiences, she said.

But Rice's confidence, instilled by her parents, helped deflect the degrading messages about her blackness and not succumb to those negative attacks.

Generations of her family would not bow to segregation. Her grandparents did not allow their children to drink from the "colored" drinking fountains or use the "colored" restrooms.

Rice's parents became educational evangelists. Later in life, she and her father worked to improve educational opportunities for children in East Palo Alto through the Center for a New Generation, which they helped found.

Her parents believed that one could alter the equation of inequality through education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for the "finer things" in white culture.

"If you were twice as good as they were, 'they' might not like you but 'they' had to respect you," she wrote, noting there was nothing worse than being a helpless victim of your circumstances.

There are few moments of self-doubt in Rice's book.

Instead, there is a wonderful photograph of Rice as a child standing outside the White House during a family trip. It is perhaps more telling than any words about the kind of adult she would grow up to be: serious, resolute and confident.

"My father said that I proclaimed, 'I will work in there some day.' I don't remember saying that, but my parents did have me convinced that even if I couldn't have a hamburger at Woolworth's lunch counter, I could grow up to be President of the United States," she said.

But she underwent a crisis in college after deciding she wasn't good enough to become a concert pianist. The rigors of music school and its insularity were stifling, she said.

A class with former Czech diplomat Josef Korbel (the father of Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton) changed her career path to international politics with a specialty in Soviet and Eastern European affairs.

But here the book at times begins to read like a curriculum vitae, where Rice's early adult years beginning at Stanford University and serving in George H.W. Bush's administration seem cursory. She does delve a bit deeper into her controversial tenure as Stanford provost, where hard decisions were made to slash the budget. Here Rice becomes reflective, at one point wondering if she was too hard on the student body. She does come out in favor of affirmative action, from which she says she benefited.

Readers expecting deeper insight into the events and decisions that shaped her political career will be disappointed. The book ends with the death of her father and George W. Bush's inauguration. Rice has said a second book addressing the years starting in 2000 is planned for publication in 2012.

Readers might wonder how Rice became a conservative, given her roots in the civil rights struggle. But she was also deeply affected by broader crises in 1960s American life. The Cuban missile crisis affected her in ways that still elicit visceral responses that surprise even her, she said.

Rice's father was also a lifelong Republican, after Southern Democrats in 1952 kept him from registering to vote after he "failed" a poll test: guessing how many hundreds of beans were in a jar. Republicans seeking to make inroads into the South readily signed him up, she said.

Rice's own choice to switch from registered Democrat is less concretely defined, although she said it came because of President Jimmy Carter's handling of the Iran hostage crisis.

But one suspects that a deeper answer lies in her early experiences. Her career of expertise in military affairs seems less one of chance and more deliberate, or at least informed, when viewed through these early lenses. And that leaves the reader wanting more.

If Rice's second book on her career and post-9/11 decisions delves deeper into how her thought processes might be informed by her early experiences, it could make fascinating reading.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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