By Tom Dulaney
Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family is joined in an unusual side-by-side release of a young adult version titled: Condoleeza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me.
Rice, most familiar to Americans as the steely-eyed and tough defender and implementer of President George W. Bush's foreign policy when she was Secretary of State, has been showing a more relaxed face during her tour, in spite of interruptions by protesters along the route.
recent appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, she related how much she relishes now reading the daily newspapers and not having to solve the problems and issues covering the pages. Friendly, joking with Stewart, she conveyed warmth and humor not often seen in the media when she was part of the Bush administration. That warmth and humor comes through strongly in her memoirs.
The two books are as much about the evolution of America in the last half of the twentieth century as they are the personal tale of Rice and the family springboard which helped launch her to an admirable career in education and public service.
She praises her “ordinary, extraordinary” parents for their determination “to give me a chance to live a unique and happy life,” she writes. “In that they succeeded.”
With soft-spoken style in her writing, she describes family life and values against the unavoidable backdrop or racial tensions in the Fifties and Sixties. Personal and family stories, as she writes them, reveal “the complicated history of blacks and whites in America.”
Tracing her roots back to enslaved ancestors and the generation in which white blood became part of the family line, she delicately traces the complex and intertwining lines and lives of black and white Americans. She recounts, in just one example, “Old Man Wheeler,” a white man who took in her grandfather and raised him with his sons.
She paints a grim reality of those days: “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 'fine things' in 'their' [whites'] culture.”
Perhaps both versions of Ms. Rice's memoirs will leave their best legacy as an inspiration to all people, regardless of skin color, that the overbearing weight of prejudice can be overcome, or at least coped with, inside the protective space of loving family, hard work, and encouraging adults and teachers.
A “captivating memoir for young people,” reads the review blurb on Amazon for the young adult version, “looking back with candor and affection.”
Rice, born in 1954, recounts with what some reviewers chide is a light touch on the hard realities of being a little black girl in Birmingham, AL during some of the worst milestones of the civil rights struggle in the South. She was just 8, a month shy of her 9th birthday, when the infamous church bombing in Birmingham killed four little girls, whom her family knew.
She grew up in a community and country that surrounded her with segregation and prejudice, but credits her parents with striving to shield the family from that corrosion and struggling to “maintain dignity.” She recalls, for example, her parents refusing to use the then-segregated restrooms and drinking fountains designated for “colored” people.
In a sad acknowledgment, Rice writes at one stage: “You will notice that I have by now described the skin color of each of my relatives. Unfortunately, it mattered. One of the scars of slavery was a deep preoccuption with skin color in the black community.”
Earlier, she calls slavery “America's birth defect.”
The two books radiate family love and ideals, where education was seen as a shield from the pervasive racist overtones dominating the early 1960s in the south.
In an unconscious metaphor for the underlying message of the memoir, Rice, an accomplished musician, recalls when she “once played for a Baptist church and found myself unable to follow the preacher when he'd 'raise a song.'” Rice was trying to blend in with the off-key preacher and turned to her Mother for help. “Mother, he starts in no known key. How am I supposed to find him?"
Her Mother's response: “'Just play in C. He'll come right back to you.' It was good advice...”
And perhaps that is the message for us all: When the world around you is pounding along off key, do the right thing and with luck they'll “come right back to you.”
Reviewers on Amazon praise the adult version of the book for its warmth, the rich detail of family history and lore it shares. Only one single-star review out of the handful of more friendly ratings appears, and the writer's issue is not with the book but the price tag of $13.23 for the Kindle ebook. He would have enjoyed it, he says, but not for more than $9.99.
That writer might be happier with the $8.74 price tag on the young adult version.