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Lessons of Might and Right

"I think that black Americans of my grandparents' ilk had liberated themselves," she says. "They had broken the code. They had figured out how to make an extraordinarily comfortable and fulfilling life despite the circumstances. They did not feel that they were captives."

This history gives Rice a strong sense of blackness, but also some discomfort with being identified as African American. She says the term suggests to her that blacks are just another immigrant group, like Italian Americans, Mexican Americans or Japanese Americans.

The first black female national security adviser, Rice grew up in the segregated South but watchful parents who taught her to "confront white society on its own terms." (Greg Miller)

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"It isn't an immigrant story. It's a different story," she says. "We have a language for dealing with immigration, but not with race, where we came to this country together but with blacks enslaved. I often talk about how when America was founded it had a birth defect, with slavery. It was there from the beginning . . .

"I know the motivation for 'African American' was to connect black Americans with the African heritage, and that part I applaud," she says. "But it implies a pure connection to Africa that doesn't go through the experiences of slavery or a mixing of the blood."

In other words, it leaves Condoleezza Rice out of the story.

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FROM INSIDE HER PARENTS' MODEST, two-bedroom bungalow at the corner of Center Way and Ninth Terrace, Condi Rice saw herself as just one of the girls. All her playmates lived in an all black, upwardly mobile world. From school to church to ballet classes, they all had the same watchwords – "twice as good," which meant you had to be twice as good as white kids to pull even (three times as good to pass them).

Racism was always there, "but so there – there all the time – that you ceased to notice its existence," Rice recalls. If children asked about it, she and her friends remember, grown-ups often responded, "Don't worry about it. It's not your problem."

"The focus was on hard work, striving to be best, not allowing ourselves to be sorry, never, ever seeing ourselves as victims," recalls Freeman Hrabowski, then an honor student protege of John Rice's at Ullman High, now president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

John Rice was a player in many families' dreams for their children, according to another daughter of black Birmingham educators – Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose uncle happened to be the Ullman principal. She remembers hearing her uncle and father, also a principal, speak often of "this fine young man they were so lucky to have in Birmingham."

"Rev," as the boys called him, ran a youth fellowship known widely as a one-stop antidote to the deprivations of segregation. He brought in the best teachers from the Negro school system to make sure his kids knew their stuff; gave lessons in chess, ping-pong and the waltz; led trips to the art museum. The beefy former football coach also organized after-school sports. And on weekends, when black kids had few places to gather, he threw co-ed dances, a brash departure from the conduct code of Negro ministers, but parents didn't worry because the jovial counselor-reverend chaperoned them himself.

Condi Rice adored him. She became a pint-size football aficionado at his knee, and proclaimed confidently to her neighbor, Carolyn Hunter, "When I grow up I'm going to marry a professional football player!"

Rice remembers seething at well-off parishioners who threatened to revolt when her father recruited kids from housing projects – "the wrong kind," in the opponents' words – to his youth fellowship. "My father hated classism," she says. She clucks her tongue in disgust at the memory of one church elder who warned, "These kids won't know how to behave!"

"His view was, 'These kids could be like yours,' " she says. "That was his focus on education."

It was also his view of religion. "You're cared about, you're guided, you can never fall too far, and if you do, there's a personal faith to pick you up," is how she says he explained God to all children.

But for all the focus on ties that bind, Condi Rice lived a life apart. With few leisure or entertainment outlets open to blacks, other families had as much money to spend, but few lavished it so purposefully on a child. Besides piano lessons with her grandmother, who was a classical pianist, she took dance, flute, violin and French.

Her friends across the street, Carole Smitherman and Vanessa Hunter, remember waiting for what seemed like hours for her to finish her latest Beethoven or Mozart and come outside. The three girls loved playing school in the Hunters' garage, where Vanessa's father, an architect, had erected a grand chalkboard. Condi's favorite role was teacher, standing at the blackboard, chalk and book in hand, lecturing an assemblage of girls and dolls.


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