Book Review

Condoleezza Rice's family memoir, reviewed by Patricia Sullivan

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By Patricia Sullivan
Sunday, October 24, 2010

EXTRAORDINARY, ORDINARY PEOPLE

A Memoir of Family

By Condoleezza Rice

Crown. 342 pp. $27

On Sept. 15, 1963, 8-year-old Condoleezza Rice was in her father's church in Birmingham, Ala., when a loud thud echoed from the explosion that killed four young girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across town. In the paralyzing fear of that moment, no one knew whether other churches were targeted. The episode revealed the fragility of the protective environment Rice's parents sought to create for her in the South's most segregated city: They were virtually powerless in the face of what Rice describes as the "homegrown terrorism" directed against Birmingham's black children.

Readers looking for insights into Rice's thinking and actions as national security adviser and secretary of state under George W. Bush will not find them in "Extraordinary, Ordinary People." The subtitle, "A Memoir of Family," describes the focus and scope of this engaging book. While the last third provides a cursory account of the academic and professional trajectory that culminates with Rice's appointment in the Bush administration, the book, at its core, is a coming-of-age story during the final years of segregation and its aftermath. Rice's account of her parents and her family life in Alabama and later in Denver complicates what many think they know about one of the most prominent women in recent history and provides a compelling portrait of the life of a middle-class Southern black family during these transitional decades.

Angelena Ray Rice and John Wesley Rice were the dominant forces in the life of their only child, Condoleezza. Her name reflects her mother's Italian heritage and love of music. Both parents were teachers; they were given to "educational evangelism" focused not only on their daughter but on young people in their community. Like many contemporaries, her parents viewed education, Rice writes, as "a kind of armor shielding me against everything -- even the deep racism in Birmingham and across America." They introduced her to their passions early on: She began taking piano lessons at age 3 and as a preschooler accompanied her father to high school football games. Her parents didn't buy a house until Rice was in college because, as her father told a colleague, "Condoleezza is our house."

Rice's world was rocked by the violence and terror that plagued Birmingham and the rest of the South as the civil rights movement approached its greatest victories. Denise McNair, the youngest victim in the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, had been a playmate. Her parents did not join the ranks of nonviolent protest; her father, she writes, "didn't believe in being nonviolent in the face of violence." Instead, he helped organize a neighborhood watch and would sit with a gun on their front porch during the night. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy just months after he introduced civil rights legislation felt "personally threatening," Rice recalls. The passage of the Civil Rights Act the following summer brought liberating changes for her family "almost immediately."

Once legal barriers fell, Rice's parents moved across racial boundaries in their church activities, educational work and social life and exposed their daughter to new opportunities and experiences. She was the first black student to attend the music conservatory at Birmingham-Southern College. After her father became an assistant dean of the nearly all-white University of Denver, he worked to integrate university life. He initiated efforts to recruit black students and faculty, developed plans for a black studies program and brought a remarkable range of speakers to campus, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Charles Rangel, Dick Gregory and Stokely Carmichael, who became a family friend. Reflecting on what attracted her father, a registered Republican and a conservative, to militants such as Carmichael, she writes that he "admired the willingness of radicals to confront American racism with strength and pride." Having been adept at "navigating and charting a course for success in the white man's world," she adds, "there was . . . a deep reservoir of anger in him regarding the circumstances of being a black man in America." Circumstances for Rice would be different, as she discovered her future in an international politics class taught by Josef Korbel, father of Madeleine Albright.

In "Extraordinary, Ordinary People," Rice offers a memoir of the two individuals most responsible for her ascent to the pinnacle of success and power. Her life has been shaped by possibilities that did not exist for her parents. One is left wondering about the ideas, ambitions and realities that informed Rice's pivotal role in the Bush administration -- the stuff, hopefully, of a second volume.

Patricia Sullivan teaches history at the University of South Carolina and is the author of "Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement."


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