Saturday, January 29, 2011

Extraordinary, Ordinary People, by Condoleezza Rice

I am no fan of Condoleezza Rice, but I found her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People interesting on several levels. First, her story of growing up in segregated Birmingham is eye-opening for someone who grew up in the rural Midwest. The ways that middle class black parents sought to insulate their children from the most damaging aspects of segregation and prejudice and give them an excellent education and happy childhood are truly both extraordinarily ordinary. At the same time, the black community had its own class and color prejudices, which Rice discusses unflinchingly. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Birmingham, Rice's father--an educator and minister--declined to take part in the King-led marches, a fact that Rice devotes considerable time to justifying.

Rice revered her parents. Again, for someone with a very different personal story--I'm one of five children--her depiction of being an only child is fascinating. To me, she seems overly entangled with her parents as an adult--but perhaps to another only child, that entanglement would seem totally normal.

Rice ends the book with George W. Bush's being declared the winner of the 2000 election, so her next book is likely to be more political. From this volume, however, I get the impression that she is far from being an idealogue. She explains that she became a Republican because she believed Jimmy Carter handled foreign policy in general and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan so badly. Of course, her beloved father was also a Republican, so that was likely influential as well. She argues more than once for affirmative action and says that she opposes overturning Roe v. Wade--not the views one might expect from Rice.

While I wished for a bit more reflection (much of the book is a straightforward recounting of events) and a heavier hand in the editing (Rice uses the phrase "to this day" so often I wanted to scream), Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a worthwhile read that reminded me how easy it is to judge someone without knowing a great deal about them.

Favorite passage:
All of these elements--extended family, community, schools, and churches--conspired together to convince me and my peers that racism was "their" problem, not ours. Whatever feelings of insecurity or inadequacy black adults felt in the appalling and depressing circumstances of Jim Crow Birmingham, they did not transfer it to us. For the children of our little enclave, Titusville, the message was crystal clear. We love you and will give you everything we can to help you succeed. But there are no excuses and there is no place for victims.

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