The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Extraordinary, Ordinary People”

One thing I’ve noticed about memoirs by women is that they often mention the clothes the author was wearing at pivotal moments. More than men do, anyway. In her new memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People ,  Condoleezza Rice remembers that as a child taking her first airplane flight away from Birmingham, Ala., she wore a “new pink and white checked dress” for the occasion. And an occasion it was: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed, and her father, an African American educator, was training to help bring even some measure of integration to Alabama schools.

In 1965, when her family attended a football game in Birmingham’s desegregated stadium, Rice and her mother wore matching “navy blue suits with gold blouses and gold hats.” Embarking on a doctoral fellowship at Stanford, she and a friend went to Saks to purchase “our first pair of Ferragamo shoes.” During a conference in Italy, she bought a Ferragamo bag for her mother, who would later die, too young, of cancer. Angelena Rice was laid to rest, Rice recalls, “elegantly dressed in a gray and black dress and very high black heels.” Reading this account of her childhood and early adulthood-it ends with the 2000 presidential election-you can just see those sexy black knee-high boots on the horizon.

Unfortunately, it almost seems as if the clothes are the only things Rice does remember with any detail. Her memoir is a tribute to her loving, attentive parents, John and Angelena Rice, but she does not illuminate them, or her upbringing, with the kind of vividness and introspection one would hope for. Instead, she produced a work so bland and flatly written that, in the space of a few pages, we are told that her Granddaddy Ray saw a “beautiful young girl” he later married; that her mother and aunt were both “stunningly beautiful;” that her aunt could “sew beautifully” and that “despite her beauty,” her mother, it was feared at one point, would never marry. Eyes in this book are “big as saucers,” tongues “wag,” and church elders are “nosy.”

At first, the failure to reach for more nuanced language and insight is only annoying. But when Rice describes her reactions to some of the most searing events in American history, it makes one wonder why her editor didn’t suggest one more pass, this time with vim and passion. Or at least a more varied language of emotion. The infamous 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church made her community “sad” and “scared.” The shooting of President Kennedy also left her “sad” and “scared.” Learning of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., she says, “I was sad. And I was angry.” Of course these sentiments were real and true, but the repetition flattens the feeling. Then again, maybe there were just no words.

But we do gain an understanding of why she was so well turned-out: We tend to think that helicopter parents are a modern phenomenon, but the Rice parents predated the trend, for their own valid reasons. Rice got lessons not only in piano and French but “ballet, gymnastics, and even baton twirling,” and later ice-skating, which she pursued seriously. Her parents tried to enroll her in the first grade at the age of 3; though that didn’t work, they put her in kindergarten, then home-schooled her until she was old enough to start first grade. They invested so much tuition and lesson money that, when someone urged her father to buy a house, he replied that they couldn’t afford it. ” Condoleezza is our house.” They weren’t narcissistic, just trying to prepare their gifted daughter for a world in which she would have to be “twice as good” as a white person to be recognized as qualified.

Rice’s mother, like most black women, worked, taking her job as a teacher seriously and finding her career fulfilling. Her father was a minister and educator whose middle-class Republicanism was able to embrace a broad range of opinion; he was fascinated by radical politics and counted as a family friend Stokely Carmichael, who referred to Condi as his ” petite soeur .”

In some ways, with such a driven daughter, the Rice’s task was easy. But she had her eccentricities. As a girl-these are some of the most endearing details in the book-the future National Security Advisor and Secretary of State reveals herself to have been jealous and retaliatory. When some friends were mean to her, she took her nice babydolls into the front yard and played with them, ostentatiously, to make the other girls envious. When a friend hesitated over her lines in an Easter pageant, smarty-pants Condi recited them. Ultimately, the good girl learned her lessons too well: The later sections devolve into a numbing description of networking and names of people she worked with, mostly avoiding the controversial or revelatory.

For all their stature and careful deportment, the Rice parents had a family ritual they followed. In the afternoon, when her favorite TV Show, The Mickey Mouse Club , came on,  Condoleezza, like all American children, would put her mouse ears on and sing. Her parents would put their mouse ears on, too, and sing with her. These three smart striving people would sit, away from the prying eyes of judgmental America, singing the Mickey Mouse song together. In the end, Rice shows that what people wear-the things grown-ups are willing to put on for their children-can tell us a great deal about them, their love and their commitment.