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Cover image for Extraordinary, ordinary people : a memoir of family
Extraordinary, ordinary people : a memoir of family
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Archetype, c2010.
Physical Description:
342 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 25 cm.
This is the story of Condoleezza Rice-- her early years growing up in the hostile environment of Birmingham, Alabama; her rise in the ranks at Stanford University to become the university's second-in-command and an expert in Soviet and Eastern European Affairs; and finally, in 2000, her appointment as the first Black woman to serve as Secretary of State.


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Item Available
Book 921 RICE 1 1
Book 921 RICE 1 1
Book 921 RICE 1 2
Book 327.730092 RIC 1 1

On Order



Condoleezza Rice has excelled as a diplomat, political scientist, and concert pianist.  Her achievements run the gamut from helping to oversee the collapse of communism in Europe and the decline of the Soviet Union, to working to protect the country in the aftermath of 9-11, to becoming only the second woman - and the first black woman ever -- to serve as Secretary of State.
But until she was 25 she never learned to swim.
Not because she wouldn't have loved to, but because when she was a little girl in Birmingham, Alabama, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor decided he'd rather shut down the city's pools than give black citizens access.
Throughout the 1950's, Birmingham's black middle class largely succeeded in insulating their children from the most corrosive effects of racism, providing multiple support systems to ensure the next generation would live better than the last.  But by 1963, when Rice was applying herself to her fourth grader's lessons, the situation had grown intolerable.  Birmingham was an environment where blacks were expected to keep their head down and do what they were told -- or face violent consequences. That spring two bombs exploded in Rice's neighborhood amid a series of chilling Klu Klux Klan attacks.  Months later, four young girls lost their lives in a particularly vicious bombing.
So how was Rice able to achieve what she ultimately did?
Her father, John, a minister and educator, instilled a love of sports and politics.  Her mother, a teacher, developed Condoleezza's passion for piano and exposed her to the fine arts.  From both, Rice learned the value of faith in the face of hardship and the importance of giving back to the community.  Her parents' fierce unwillingness to set limits propelled her to the venerable halls of Stanford University, where she quickly rose through the ranks to become the university's second-in-command.  An expert in Soviet and Eastern European Affairs, she played a leading role in U.S. policy as the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated.  Less than a decade later, at the apex of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, she received the exciting news - just shortly before her father's death - that she would go on to the White House as the first female National Security Advisor. 
As comfortable describing lighthearted family moments as she is recalling the poignancy of her mother's cancer battle and the heady challenge of going toe-to-toe with Soviet leaders, Rice holds nothing back in this remarkably candid telling. This is the story of Condoleezza Rice that has never been told, not that of an ultra-accomplished world leader, but of a little girl - and a young woman -- trying to find her place in a sometimes hostile world and of two exceptional parents, and an extended family and community, that made all the difference.

Author Notes

Condoleezza Rice was the National Security Advisor and the 66th U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of George W. Bush. She served as provost of Stanford University for 6 years and was the Soviet and East European Affairs advisor to President of the United States George H. W. Bush.

Rice earned her bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Denver; her master's from the University of Notre Dame; and her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Rice's books include, Uncertain Allegiance: The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army (1984), The Gorbachev Era (1986) with Alexander Dallin, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (1995) with Philip Zelikow, Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me (2010), Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (2010), No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (2011), and Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom (2017).

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Former secretary of state Rice only briefly treats her tenure during the second Bush administration in favor of a straightforward, reverential chronicle of her upbringing under two teachers in the segregated Deep South. Rice acknowledges upfront the complicated, intertwined history of blacks and whites in America, which lent a lightening of skin to her forebears that was looked upon favorably at the time. Her father, John Wesley Rice Jr., came from a family of well-educated itinerant preachers in Louisiana, while the family of her mother, Angelena Ray, were Birmingham, Ala., landowners; both were teachers at Fairfield Industrial High School and determined to live "full and productive lives" in Birmingham, despite the blight of segregation (e.g., poll tests in the largely Democratic South resolved John Rice to become a lifelong Republican). Cocooned in an educational and musical environment, Rice was a high-achieving only child. Yet the encroaching racial tension broke open in Birmingham in the form of store boycotts, bombings, and demonstrations. Eventually, the family moved to Denver, where Rice attended the university, majoring first in piano then political science, due to the influence of professor and former Czech diplomat Josef Korbel. Rice moves fleetingly through her subsequent education at Notre Dame and Stanford. Swept into Washington Republican politics by Colin Powell and others, she sketches the "wild ride" accompanying the Soviet Union's demise, but overall records a thrilling, inspiring life of achievement. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Having served under two Bush presidencies as national security advisor and secretary of state Rice is well known for her icy demeanor and steely disposition. This memoir presents a young woman deeply attached to her devoted parents, who encouraged her at every step of her life to overcome racism, sexism, and her own personal doubts. Her roots are deep in the South, with a family that pridefully skirted racism never using the colored facilities or riding in the back of the bus. Her mother, Angelena, was a cultured teacher who taught her piano, while her father, John, was a Presbyterian minister and later a college administrator who, despite his Republican politics, strongly admired black radicals, developing a friendship with Stokely Carmichael. He declined to march with Martin Luther King in nonviolent protests and was more inclined to sit on the front porch with a loaded shotgun to ward off white night riders. The Rice family personally knew the young girls who were killed in the church bombing, one of the more violent episodes the family endured before they eventually left the South. Rice presents a frank, poignant, and loving portrait of a family that maintained its closeness through cancer, death, career ups and downs, and turbulent changes in American society.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

AS of 2005, the United States had a black, female secretary of state, and yet black America has largely observed this more than celebrated it. There is a tacit sense "out there" that Condoleezza Rice isn't black in the "real" way, as we might put it. Not "with" us, perhaps. Part of this is of course because she is a Republican who served under a deeply unpopular president. After the N.A.A.C.P. dutifully honored her with a President's Image Award in 2002, the black Columbia historian Manning Marable dismissed Rice as a "leading race traitor" and the award as "accommodation" to an antiblack corporate establishment. Around the same time, black audiences chuckled approvingly when Amiri Baraka read the line "Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleezza," from his poem "Somebody Blew Up America." Yet there is more to it than that. Rice's public self-presentation is distinctly impersonal. Unethnic, for one, but shading into outright ineffability. One grapples for an adjective to describe her personality, even after reading her autobiography, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People." She would have us believe that her dazzling journey, from growing up in segregated Birmingham to helping to lead the world, can be credited to attentive parents, the "extraordinary, ordinary" folk of the title. Yet it becomes clear that Rice has always been a wunderkind singleton. As a result, one detects a touch of the perfunctory in the family aspect of her tale, as well as a disinclination toward serious introspection. Rice's parents, both educators, provided a fine environment for germination. Rice grew up in the parallel universe that middle-class black parents in the segregated South built for their children, a world of socials, bowling and bonnets, with black children from "rough" neighborhoods kept at a distance. Her recollection of her parents all aflutter trying to teach her about the birds and the bees plays like something out of "Father Knows Best." As a young piano student, Rice liked to imagine herself as Mozart's wife, and in 1968, when she was 13 years old, she spent afternoons mimicking ice-skating moves to Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. No one in this era was tarring any of this as "white," and parents insisted that blacks had to be twice as good as whites to succeed. Rice notes, "This was declared as a matter of fact, not a point for debate." All of this was ordinary for middle-class blacks in that time and place. What wasn't ordinary was Rice's coming out of a political science course at the University of Denver so entranced with Russian history that she decided to become a Soviet specialist. It does not discount black people's wide range of interests to say that in the early '70s, Soviet affairs was an unusual career choice for a black woman raised in Jim Crow Birmingham. Members of this first generation of black academics much more commonly sought to explore the black past and present. You would never know this from Rice's breezy account of this period in her life. She sometimes sounds like a white debutante from somewhere in Connecticut, as if black people from the Deep South always named their cars after the protagonist of their favorite Russian opera (hers was "Boris Godunov," for the record). We learn little about Rice's inner life as she sails to one triumph after another, as a Stanford fellowship becomes a tenure-track assistant professorship, the Council on Foreign Relations sends her to Washington and next thing she knows she's working at the National Security Council, getting appointed provost of Stanford, and fielding calls from George Bush père, who wants her to meet his son for some foreign policy brush-up. The rest we know. Yet we will need biographers to give us more than Rice does about her actual work and the reasons for its rapturous reception. Her book comes close only in furnishing scattered childhood evidence of a furiously disciplined, even insular, individual. Rice reminds us that she liked the Temptations and Led Zeppelin and admits a tendency to procrastination (one she has apparently indulged only rarely over the past 30 years). However, this is also someone who as a girl encouraged her father to rat out local kids who were having an unchaperoned party; refused to settle for the kiddie plate in restaurants; and as a teenager adhered enthusiastically to a schedule that had her up at 4:30 for skating practice, followed by school at 7, piano lessons and more skating afterward, and bedtime by 9:30. Plenty of her peers, even the above-average ones with self-sacrificing parents, would have considered this schedule unthinkable. This singularity presumably helps explain the Republicanism that all but a sliver of her black generation rejected. Her explanation is that she'd rather be ignored by Republicans than patronized by Democrats, but this suggests an ironic, back-door motivation that does not correspond to her general politics, upon which she would find little disagreement from Michael (as well as Shelby) Steele. "There are no excuses and there is no place for victims," she says she was taught. She rejects the idea that one needs mentors who "look like you," as well as the term "African-American." Yet Rice is not deracialized in the way some suppose. It would be hard to be, growing up in Birmingham in the '50s. She knew the girls who died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and reminds us that to blacks of that era, the immediate response to John F. Kennedy's assassination was terror that a Southerner was now in the White House. Despite reports to the contrary, she favors affirmative action, albeit in the sense of outreach rather than so-called diversity quotas (although her comments here reveal a level of ambivalence about aspects of implementation). At Stanford in the 1990s, she helped found the Centers for a New Generation, a youth-education program in depressed East Palo Alto; and she acknowledges that her own rise at Stanford, early in her academic career, was facilitated by the university's affirmativeaction efforts. We learn these things as facts, but over all, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People" is oddly detached for an autobiography. People like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maya Angelou are fully present in their childhood recollections of similar circumstances in a way that Rice never is; she often seems to be watching rather than writing about herself. Those interested in her romantic life, for instance, will have to be satisfied with elliptical glimpses. (She didn't marry her main college sweetheart, the Denver Broncos wide receiver Rick Upchurch, because he mysteriously "had too many irons in the fire.") In general, her political aperçus rarely go deeper than this: "But the war left the Iraqi dictator in power, able to threaten his neighbors and oppress his people. That would be a problem for another day." Nor is this "Memoir of Family" an insider's report on Rice's life after 2000, to which she devotes a single page: the last one. If there is a lesson from Rice's book, it is that the civil rights revolution made it possible for an extremely talented black person (a woman, no less) to embrace a raceneutral subject and ride it into service as secretary of state, all the while thinking of herself largely as just a person. That the story is not exactly exciting can perhaps be taken as confirmation of how considerably times have changed. Rice during the confirmation hearing for her nomination as secretary of state in 2005. Rice says she would prefer to be ignored by Republicans than patronized by Democrats. John McWhorter teaches at Columbia University and is a contributing editor for The New Republic and City Journal.

Kirkus Review

Former Secretary of State Rice presents a low-key, modest memoir about growing up an only child to highly educated teachers in segregated Birmingham, Ala.The author poignantly depicts a Southern black culture strongly centered on the schools and the churches. In the era of Jim Crow segregation, racial prejudice permeated every facet of society, even within black communities where lighter-skinned people were offered better opportunities. Rice's mother, Angelena, hailed from Birmingham and was college-educated and musical; her father, John, from Baton Rouge, was an ordained pastor, educational crusader and athletic director. The author was named after a melodious Italian musical term, con dolcezza ("with sweetness"), adjusted for American ears. Pushed at a very early age to achieve, she excelled at the piano, ice skating and the debating team. Early on she became keenly aware of thepernicious nature of segregation. By 1962, Birmingham had become a racially-charged, violent city. As John Rice's career shifted from preaching to education, the family moved to Denver, where Rice entered college at age 16. Casting about for a major, she was influenced by former Czech diplomat turned professor Josef Korbel (father to Madeleine Albright) and embarked on Soviet studies and political science. The author chronicles a dizzying academic trajectory from Notre Dame to Stanford, where she eventually became a tenured professorclearly an affirmative-action hire, of which she is "a fierce defender"and, later, provost. While completing various prestigious fellowships, she befriended Colin Powell, who mentored her, and Brent Scowcroft, who invited her to join the Bush I team at the National Security Council in 1989, a time of spectacular changes in the Soviet Union. Rice briefly touches on these times, but keeps the focus on the last years of her parents, ending with her father's death just at the election of Bush II.Provides some interesting tidbits but no great revelations, except on why she became a Republican: "I would rather be ignored than patronized."]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Rice's graceful memoir is a personal, multigenerational look into her own, and our country's, past. With vivid and heartfelt writing, Rice, U.S. secretary of state under George W. Bush, looks back on her grandparents and parents, then moves forward through her own life up to the 2000 election (this is not a political memoir for the most part). Some of the most moving parts are those relating to her early family life in Birmingham. Rice was a child during the height of the Civil Rights Movement while living in staunchly segregated Alabama. She knew the little girls killed in the 16th Street Church bombing and witnessed much of the violence of that time. Despite the circumstances of their lives, Rice's parents were dedicated to education and providing the best opportunities possible to their daughter, an only child. Her family was also very involved in their local community (they moved from Birmingham to Denver in 1967) and worked tirelessly to convince others to value education as they did. -VERDICT Readers will perceive Rice's emotion in relating her story, yet her portrayal seems fair and unbiased. This book by a truly fascinating woman is highly recommended to all interested readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/10.]-Lisa A. Ennis, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Starting Early My parents were anxious to give me a head start in life--perhaps a little too anxious. My first memory of confronting them and in a way declaring my independence was a conversation concerning their ill-conceived attempt to send me to first grade at the ripe age of three. My mother was teaching at Fairfield Industrial High School in Alabama, and the idea was to enroll me in the elementary school located on the same campus. I don't know how they talked the principal into going along, but sure enough, on the first day of school in September 1958, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into Mrs. Jones' classroom. I was terrified of the other children and of Mrs. Jones, and I refused to stay. Each day we would repeat the scene, and each day my father would have to pick me up and take me to my grandmother's house, where I would stay until the school day ended. Finally I told my mother that I didn't want to go back because the teacher wore the same skirt every morning. I am sure this was not literally true. Perhaps I somehow already understood that my mother believed in good grooming and appropriate attire. Anyway, the logic of my argument aside, Mother and Daddy got the point and abandoned their attempt at really early childhood education. I now think back on that time and laugh. John and Angelena were prepared to try just about anything--or to let me try just about anything--that could be called an educational opportunity. They were convinced that education was a kind of armor shielding me against everything--even the deep racism in Birmingham and across America. They were bred to those views. They were both born in the South at the height of segregation and racial prejudice--Mother just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1924 and Daddy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1923. They were teenagers during the Great Depression, old enough to remember but too young to adopt the overly cautious financial habits of their parents. They were of the first generation of middle-class blacks to attend historically black colleges--institutions that previously had been for the children of the black elite. And like so many of their peers, they rigorously controlled their environment to preserve their dignity and their pride. Objectively, white people had all the power and blacks had none. "The White Man," as my parents called "them," controlled politics and the economy. This depersonalized collective noun spoke to the fact that my parents and their friends had few inter-actions with whites that were truly personal. In his wonderful book Colored People, Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. recalled that his family and friends in West Virginia addressed white people by their professions--for example, "Mr. Policeman" or "Mr. Milkman." Black folks in Birmingham didn't even have that much contact. It was just "The White Man." Certainly, in any confrontation with a white person in Alabama you were bound to lose. But my parents believed that you could alter that equation through education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for the "finer things" in "their" culture. If you were twice as good as they were, "they" might not like you but "they" had to respect you. One could find space for a fulfilling and productive life. There was nothing worse than being a helpless victim of your circumstances. My parents were determined to avoid that station in life. Needless to say, they were even more determined that I not end up that way. My parents were not blue bloods. Yes, there were blue bloods who were black. These were the families that had emerged during Reconstruction, many of whose patriarchs had been freed well before slavery ended. Those families had bloodlines going back to black lawyers and doctors of the late nineteenth century; some of their ancestral lines even included political figures such as Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black United States senator. There were pockets of these families in the Northeast and a large colony in Chicago. Some had attended Ivy League schools, but others, particularly those from the South, sent their children to such respected institutions as Meharry Medical College, Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman, and the Tuskegee Institute. In some cases these families had been college-educated for several generations. My mother's family was not from this caste, though it was more patrician than my father's. Mattie Lula Parrom, my maternal grandmother, was the daughter of a high-ranking official, perhaps a bishop, in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Though details about her father, my great-grandfather, are sketchy, he was able to provide my grandmother with a first-rate education for a "colored" girl of that time. She was sent to a kind of finishing school called St. Mark's Academy and was taught to play the piano by a European man who had come from -Vienna. Grandmother had rich brown skin and very high cheekbones, exposing American Indian blood that was obvious, if ill-defined. She was deeply religious, unfailingly trusting in God, and cultured. My grandfather Albert Robinson Ray III was one of six siblings, extremely fair-skinned and possibly the product of a white father and black mother. His sister Nancy had light eyes and auburn hair. There was also apparently an Italian branch of the family on his mother's side, memorialized in the names of successive generations. There are several Altos; my mother and her grandmother were named Angelena; my aunt was named Genoa (though, as southerners, we call her "Gen-OH-a"); my cousin is Lativia; and I am Condoleezza, all attesting to that part of our heritage. Granddaddy Ray's story is a bit difficult to tie down because he ran away from home when he was thirteen and did not reconnect with his family until he was an adult. According to family lore, Granddaddy used a tire iron to beat a white man who had assaulted his sister. Fearing for his life, he ran away and, later, found himself sitting in a train station with one token in his pocket in the wee hours of the morning. Many years later, Granddaddy would say that the sound of a train made him feel lonely. His last words before he died were to my mother. "Angelena," he said, "we're on this train alone." In any case, as Granddaddy sat alone in that station, a white man came over and asked what he was doing there at that hour of the night. For reasons that are not entirely clear, "Old Man Wheeler," as he was known in our family, took my grandfather home and raised him with his sons. I remember very well going to my grandmother's house in 1965 to tell her that Granddaddy had passed away at the hospital. She wailed and soon said, "Somebody call the Wheeler boys." One came over to the house immediately. They were obviously just like family. I've always been struck by this story because it speaks to the complicated history of blacks and whites in America. We came to this country as founding populations--Europeans and Africans. Our bloodlines have crossed and been intertwined by the ugly, sexual exploitation that was very much a part of slavery. Even in the depths of segregation, blacks and whites lived very close to one another. There are the familiar stories of black nannies who were "a part of the family," raising the wealthy white children for whom they cared. But there are also inexplicable stories like that of my grandfather and the Wheelers. We still have a lot of trouble with the truth of how tangled our family histories are. These legacies are painful and remind us of America's birth defect: slavery. I remember all the fuss about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings a few years back. Are we kidding? I thought. Of course Jefferson had black children. I can also remember being asked how I felt when I learned that I apparently had two white great-grandfathers, one on each side of the family. I just considered it a fact--no feelings were necessary. We all have white ancestors, and some whites have black ancestors. Once at a Stanford football game, my father and I sat in front of a white man who reached out his hand and said, "My name is Rice too. And I'm from the South." The man blanched when my father suggested we might be related. It is just easier not to talk about all of this or to obscure it with the term "African American," which recalls the immigration narrative. There are groups such as Mexican Americans, Korean Americans, and German Americans who retain a direct link to their immigrant ancestors. But the fact is that only a portion of those with black skin are direct descendants of African immigrants as is President Obama, who was born of a white American mother and a Kenyan father. There is a second narrative, which involves immigrants from the West Indies such as Colin Powell's parents. And what of the descendants of slaves in the old Confederacy? I prefer "black" and "white." These terms are starker and remind us that the first Europeans and the first Africans came to this country together--the Africans in chains. Excerpted from Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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