But even as she acted out little-girl fantasies, her parents had their eyes on their prize. Carolyn Hunter, Vanessa's mother, remembers closing the garage door one summer day to keep out mosquitoes, when Condi stopped her: "'Miz Hunter, if you let the door down, I'll have to go home.' "
"I said, 'Why, baby?' " Hunter recalls, "and she said, 'My mama can't watch me.' "
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."
"It was great being my parents' daughter, but sometimes it was terrible," Rice confesses. She remembers a variety show in grade school for which she and other girls planned to dress up as the Supremes. "And my father decided it was undignified," she says. Her parents arranged instead for her to tap dance "by myself!" which she'd never done. "They went and hired a tap dance teacher. I had this peculiar outfit, and my father stood there by the stage with his arms crossed to make sure nobody laughed," she says. "That's the way my parents were. I was always supposed to do something different and special, and slightly more refined."
The only place most black children encountered whites was downtown, where elaborate Jim Crow laws maintained distance amid proximity always at the expense of black dignity. Parents of Rice's friends recall the anguish of having children ask, "Why?" then having to explain it was because their skin was black.
"It used to hurt my heart," Carolyn Hunter says, closing her eyes as if feeling the pain again. "You had to take it to God, and sometimes it seemed like even He wasn't listening," says Doris Mitchell, whose two daughters were friends of Condi's.
All of which makes Angelena Rice's stand in the fitting room door even more remarkable. And it was not her only stand. Condi Rice recalls another shopping trip when she saw a pretty hat and was touching it admiringly, when a white saleswoman snapped, as if addressing a dog, "Get your hands off that!" In an instant, Angelena Rice was warning the woman through clenched teeth, "Don't talk to my daughter that way," then lovingly instructing her little girl, "Condoleezza, go touch every hat in this store." Rice happily complied.
Besides nerves of steel, Angelena Rice had a strategic grasp of the power of her purse. She even took her daughter shopping in Mountain Brook where black people rarely appeared except as servants and bought clothes at the exclusive Canterbury Shop, specializing in "fine children's wear."
Indeed, class took the edge off race, even then. "We didn't have riffraff of any color. We attracted the cream," remembers Bernard Goldstein, one of the owners. "We did have a few black customers, and they were educated people, people of means, like our white customers. We were happy to have them. They wanted the best. They weren't looking for bargains."
Perhaps nothing more powerfully illustrates the independence of Rice's mind-set than her attitude toward the most dazzling children's scene in Birmingham Kiddieland. It wasn't special by today's standards, but Ferris wheels, bumper cars and carousels constituted a wonderland in our sooty steel town. A whites-only wonderland, that is.
"I'd cry every time I passed there," Freeman Hrabowski recalls. "I'd ask my parents, 'Why can't we go?' The children looked like they were having the time of their lives. Imagine a child seeing that and not being able to go in."
King even referenced Kiddieland in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail: "You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes . . . and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky . . ."
But Kiddieland never darkened Condi Rice's mental sky. "All of us knew Kiddieland was off limits," she says. "I don't remember being distressed. I never was one much for fairs or theme parks." Besides, she remembers a friend's father telling her Kiddieland was nothing special. "He said, 'You don't want to go to Kiddieland. We'll go to Disneyland.' "
WHEN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT came to Birmingham, the Rice family like middle-class blacks in general kept its distance.
Condi Rice says her father embraced its goals, but not its means. "My father was not a march-in-the-street preacher," she says. He strenuously opposed the tactic that ultimately broke white business resistance to ending segregation in stores downtown recruiting children to march into police commissioner Bull Connor's phalanx of officers, police dogs and fire hoses, and overflow the jails. "He saw no reason to put children at risk," Rice says. "He would never put his own child at risk."
"If we'd waited for the middle class to lead us, we'd still be waiting," says the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, now 79, who led the local movement from Bethel Baptist Church, a poor and working-class flock.
As throngs of children headed for the streets, Eva Carter, then an Ullman student, took John Rice's advice not to join them. "There's a better way," she remembers him saying. "I want you to fight with your mind."