Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice
Reviewed by Diamond Michael Scott, Independent Journalist | Global Book Ambassador
Our nation is in upheaval: A deadly pandemic. Riots over racial justice. A looming presidential election. An unsettled economy.
During times like this, we often stumble upon books that inform our life perspective. That allows us to pause and reflect on the profound shifts taking place in our world and how to respond to them.
Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family is one such book. It offers a rare autobiographical glimpse into the life of Condoleezza Rice, one of the preeminent global citizens and leaders of our time.
Filled with an abundance of shifting plot lines, the book begins with a deep dive into her upbringing by two remarkable parents in the southern city of Birmingham, Alabama. She shares how her black middle-class roots along with up close and personal experiences with the racial climate prevailing at the time informed her views on freedom and democracy.
Rice’s quiet, calm resolve is on display throughout the chapters as she explores her journey as a woman wrestling with the paradoxical world of race, politics, economics, and global affairs. Urbane and sophisticated in her thinking, Rice talks affectionately about her early interest in music (she trained to become a concert pianist) and how it was a pivotal piece in her orientation to life.
While in college, Rice shifted her interests from the musical arts in order to major in political science. Over time she acquired a Ph.D. and became an expert in Soviet and Eastern European Affairs. Her fluency in Russian and Czech is just one element of her impressive repertoire of knowledge which includes history, the arts, and even NFL football.
Toward the latter part of the book, Rice talks about her research work at the RAND Corporation and how this translated into a career at Stanford University. During her first year at this elite university, she received the highest award for teaching. She then went on to become recognized as a prominent Cold War scholar, playing a key role in U.S. policy efforts on the heels of the Soviet Union collapse.
Later in the book, she opens up about her years working for President George H.W. Bush as well as her time with the Presidential administration of George W. Bush.
In reading Rice’s book you can’t help but be impressed by her massive set of achievements, from helping oversee the collapse of communism in Europe, to working to bring back a safe America after 9-11, to becoming only the second woman and first black woman to serve as Secretary of State.
During this time in America, one filled with tense protests and calls for racial justice, Rice’s book offers a fascinating set of perspectives about her early life in the South growing up in a middle-class black community.
Gov. George Wallace’s calls for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” were in full bloom as well as the constant threat of racially motivated violence (Rice’s was friends with one of the young girls killed in the Sixteenth Street church bombing).
Rice says she was encouraged by her parents to be “twice as good,” never allowing herself to be cast as a victim amidst segregation’s humiliating circumstances. She describes growing up in a loving household, one where her mother immersed the family in fine arts and her father mentored her on the deeper intricacies of football.
The book also explores how in the ’50s, the modus operandi of Birmingham’s black middle class was to insulate their children from the ugly realities of racism all while setting up foundational systems to ensure their success in life. In later years as the prevailing environment became harsher, these same kids were instructed to keep their heads down and comply with whatever they were told to do. — or face damaging consequences.
Rice talks about how in the spring of 1963, two bombs went off in her neighborhood along with a series of Klu Klux Klan attacks. A few short months later is when the four girls lost their life in a heinous church bombing. This period rattled the nation, placing Birmingham in the spotlight of racism in America.
Rice’s book also chronicles their family relocation to Denver in the ’70s, a move which led to Rice’s first flirtation with international politics and foreign affairs at the University of Denver. It was also during this period that her dad decided to transition out of his role as a Presbyterian minister in order to pursue work as an assistant dean at that same university.
Throughout the book, Rice talks affectionately about the unrelenting support she received from him when she elected to follow his footsteps into the world of higher education. She earned a Ph.D. before becoming a tenured faculty member and later provost at Stanford University.
In the Q&A section of the book, I was particularly struck by Rice’s thoughts about the greatest obstacles and challenges facing young Americans in the twenty-first century? She states:
“We are facing a real crisis in this country when I can look at a child’s zip code and tell you whether he or she is going to get a good education. As growth in the world’s economy continues to demand more skilled workers, the United States risks falling behind other nations in maintaining even basic literacy and arithmetic proficiency among our children. Nearly one in four students who take the U.S. military’s entrance exam do not pass, given the poor state of our country’s educational system.”
Citing the crisis in K-12 education as truly the greatest national security challenge facing this country, Rice offered this:
“Compounding this issue is what President George W. Bush has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that is preventing underprivileged and minority students from reaching their full potential. The widening achievement gap in our country threatens to leave behind an entire generation of students because of an implicit and patronizing bias that suggests their dire circumstances simply make it impossible to help them succeed. We are failing to deliver for these students the basic promise of equality of opportunity that is vital to the American experience. Without that, America will have lost its core principle that makes our country the envy of the world.”
Paying homage to her inspiring family, Extraordinary, Ordinary People is an extraordinary portrait of loving parents who instilled in their daughter the importance of transcending all obstacles racial or otherwise through dogged determination and education.
Rice’s elegant and thoughtful discourse never leads the reader by the nose but allows her family legacy to speak for itself. I believe that this book is essential, now more than ever, as our nation confronts a new day in terms of what it means to be free and prosperous in America.
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