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Rice recounts family strength during segregationist '60s

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Extraordinary, Ordinary People

A Memoir of Family

By Condoleezza Rice

Random House, 342 pages, $31

Condoleezza Rice was U.S. national security adviser and secretary of state under President George W. Bush; she was provost of Stanford University in California; she served on the U.S. National Security Council during the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Gulf War.

These are remarkable achievements for anyone, but especially for someone who grew up amid the segregation and brutal prejudice of Birmingham, Ala., of the 1960s. For this, Rice gives full credit to her parents in this loving though oddly detached memoir of her life with them.

John and Angelena Rice saw education as a sort of armour against the world. Like their parents before them, they did whatever they could to control their circumstances and preserve their dignity. And like other middle-class black parents, they expected their child to do well and provided many opportunities for achievement.

Angelena was a high school teacher who had a formidable presence in the classroom despite her small size. John was a preacher and high school athletic coach who instilled the value of a college education in every student he mentored.

When their daughter was born in 1954, Angelena was determined she would be a musician, while John was equally determined she should love sports.

Both wishes were fulfilled: she became an accomplished pianist who has performed with chamber groups, and a keen football fan who was in on the hiring of more than one football coach at Stanford.

The chapters covering the '50s and '60s are particularly interesting because they present one family's experience of that momentous time in American history.

Rice draws on her own memories, along with those of relatives, neighbours and her parents' former colleagues and students. She consults historical sources to add detail and provide context.

She remembers the practical difficulties segregation imposed. For instance, when the family drove from Birmingham to New York for her father's graduate studies, there was no place for black people to stay or eat until they reached Washington, D.C., 1,000 kilometres away.

She remembers the bombing of a Baptist church in 1963 that killed one of her playmates. And she details how life changed after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

The family moved to Denver in the late '60s. Here John Rice began a new career in university administration, and Condoleezza found her passion for international politics.

Her mother's death of cancer at age 61 was devastating. Rice titles this chapter The Darkest Moment of My Life. Yet she was grateful that her mother saw her grow to adulthood and begin a career.

Although Rice calls this "a book about my parents," there are places where it is very much about Condoleezza Rice.

She is a woman of strong opinions, and pauses in her narrative to explain her views on (among other things) affirmative action, "black" versus "African-American," and why she became a Republican and not a Democrat.

While this sometimes works, the last third of the book feels unbalanced. This is partly because Angelena is now absent, but also because Rice's accelerating career takes prominence.

It's been an exciting career, worth a book in itself, but John, too, had an interesting post-retirement career during those years, and Rice doesn't show us enough of that. This is surprising, since they were in close contact to the end.

John died in December 2000, just before his daughter joined the Bush administration as national security adviser. And that is where Rice ends the story.

Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2010 H8

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