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Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family

Rice is factual, but somewhat remote and, to no one's surprise, maintains mostly a tone one might call cool. Anyone searching for details of Dr. Rice's personal life will be mostly disappointed. This is absolutely not a tell-all autobiography. A few men get a few words each.

By Don Noble

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

In spite of having become a household name, an advisor to the first President Bush, National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush and only the second woman and first black woman to serve as Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice remains something of an enigma to most Americans. Readers are seeking, in this volume of memoirs, answers to a number of questions about Dr. Rice.

Some of those questions will be answered, some not.

Rice is factual, but somewhat remote and, to no one's surprise, maintains mostly a tone one might call cool.

Out of the 342 pages, only the last two deal with her life and career after the inauguration of George W. Bush. The events since January of 2001, one presumes, will be dealt with in a subsequent volume.

Anyone searching for details of Dr. Rice's personal life will be mostly disappointed. This is absolutely not a tell-all autobiography. A few men get a few words each.

There was Wayne Bullock, a football player at Notre Dame, then, in 1975, Broncos' player Rick Upchurch. "I thought for the first time that I'd found the man I wanted to marry?.We were so in sync?" But, Rice tells us, gently, "he had too many irons in the fire?.We remained friends."

She also dated retired all-pro wide receiver Gene Washington: "We dated for a while before becoming the fast friends that we remain to this day."

As is quite clear, the Rices were avid sports fans.

This book is sold as the story of her parents and her childhood, and it is.

Condoleezza Rice was born on November 14, 1954, and raised in the Titusville section of Birmingham, the only child of two schoolteachers. She tells of how her Granddaddy Rice, attending Stillman College, became willing and eager to become a Presbyterian minister, got a scholarship and graduated. Not only were both her parents college graduates, Rice was not even the first Ph.D. in the family; that honor goes to her aunt Theresa, with a doctorate in English literature.

Her parents, she tells us, believed that "education was a kind of armor shielding me against everything?even the deep racism in Birmingham and across America." Her family also, like many another, resisted instilling in her what would have been an understandable but unfortunate bitterness.

This is a solidly middle-class family, whose standards were high: "education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, an appreciation for the 'finer things.'" Rice's parents paid for lessons in French, "ballet, gymnastics, and even baton-twirling." Piano lessons and ice skating lessons were more serious. Rice had professional aspirations in both. A black had to be twice as good to get the job, but a fulfilling and productive life could be achieved. "There was nothing worse than being a helpless victim." Although, and in part because, Birmingham was so strictly segregated, black parents could create a "cocoon," "in large part, control the environment in which they raised their children." It was family first, then community, then schools and churches. "Whites and blacks lived in parallel worlds.?"

Her parents, like many others, kept their children out of rough black neighborhoods and away from humiliating experiences. These children were instructed never to use the "colored" facilities or water fountain. Wait until you get home.

Rice tells a couple of what could be considered emblematic, character-shaping stories.

Rice's father told her that he had been rejected in his attempt to register to vote in 1952. The clerk used the "jar full of beans" ploy. How many are there? Learning that one of the clerks was a Republican and would "register anybody who'll say they're Republican," her father tried again, succeeded and "for the rest of his life was a faithful member of the Republican Party."

Rice also recalls the disgraceful days in her own childhood when Birmingham was "Bombingham."

With bombs going off regularly, and the Klan marauding in pick -up trucks, the men of her neighborhood set up a watch. They sat through the nights at the ends of the streets, or on their porches, with guns in their laps.

"Because of this experience," Rice says," I'm a fierce defender of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms." Citizens have the right to protect themselves when the authorities will not and sometimes need to protect themselves against the authorities, in this case Bull Connor, who was, according to Rice's father, "the personification of evil."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Rev. John W. Rice, a big man, did not think he could follow Dr. King's call for nonviolent demonstrations: "if some redneck comes after me with a billy club or a dog, I'm going to try to kill him?.Then they'll kill me and my daughter will be an orphan."

Because John W., a minister and educator, wanted to take a job as dean of students at Stillman College, the family moved to Tuscaloosa. Mother was reluctant to go to a place she described as "in the boondocks." Nevertheless, the Rices moved, and young Condoleezza attended Druid High where her mother taught. The family lived on the Stillman campus in '66, '67 and '68, before moving to Denver.

In Denver, Rice attended private school, then Denver University, then Notre Dame, then Denver again for a Ph.D. She was hired to teach at Stanford University, where she rose through the ranks finally becoming Provost.

There is no doubt she was a brilliant student, mastering Russian and becoming an expert on the Soviet Union. Rice was, however, in small ways, the beneficiary of affirmative action and supports it "if done in what I consider to be the right way." She is for diversity, but opposed to quotas. Institutions need to be flexible and look for talent in new places.

Besides the opportunity given her by affirmative action, however, there is also in this book a clear illustration of the importance of what we now call mentoring. In Tuscaloosa, her father "struck up a friendship with .?[ a UA administrator] named Dr. John Blackburn?."

By coincidence, John Blackburn moved to the University of Denver as vice chancellor and there too helped John Rice in his career, as he had in Tuscaloosa.

Condoleezza Rice herself was taken under the wing of a brilliant teacher from Czechoslovakia, Professor Joseph Korbel, who encouraged her to become a Soviet specialist and, later, to take the Ph.D. at the Graduate School of International Studies at Denver.
Joseph Korbel's daughter, it turns out, was studying political science at Columbia University. Her name was Madeleine Albright.

This is the story of Rice's life and extraordinary career, mostly told in a matter of fact manner. It is only in the sections having to do with her mother and father, their faith in her, their "overwhelming and unconditional love," their sacrifices for her and their unfortunate early deaths, that the reader gets a glimpse of the strong feelings in this powerful, self-disciplined woman. Her greatest sadness is the loss of her parents and the wish that they could have seen their Condoleezza as the first black female Secretary of State.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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