Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Extraordinary, Ordinary People by Condoleeza Rice

Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family
Every so often, and sometimes even by design, the sequence of books I'm reading takes on a theme. I saw Condi Rice on a talk show a few weeks ago, and liked the sound of her book, so I put in a hold request at the library. I recently posted over on Soon Remembered Tales about Juan Williams' book, Enough. A big part of that book was about the power of education, and how it can lift minorities from poverty. This theme is HUGE in Rice's autobiography.

Condoleeza Rice was raised in a black home in Birmingham, Alabama during some of the worst civil rights abuses and strongly racist environment that this country has ever seen, since the abolition of slavery. Yet her extended family managed to succeed and live a middle class lifestyle from shortly after the Civil War ended through the power of education, basically. Her grandparents did everything they could to learn to read and write (which was forbidden to blacks under slavery), and get high school and college educations. On both her mother's and father's sides of the family, they produced preachers and teachers, mostly, and some of them like her father, did both.

Condi's folks knew that education was the key to advancement in America, and they pounded that idea home, not only in her upbringing, but with every young person they interacted with. Her father, John Rice, considered himself an education evangelist, fully sold out to the gospel of higher education. Her mother, Anna, was also a teacher, and spent her entire life encouraging the children in her classrooms to go on to college. There are a couple of anecdotes in this book about Condi's grandfather actually driving cross country to bring back a straying relative and enroll them in college.

Condi began her college education as a music performance major, but realized after a while that that wasn't anything she could see herself doing as a long term career, so she switched to political science and international relations, eventually winning her degree at Denver University. Later, she got her masters and doctoral degrees, and went on to serve as a national security advisor in the first and second Bush administrations, as well as Secretary of State. Ms. Rice was, in my opinion, driven to succeed, by the high expectations and strong work ethic her family taught.

She openly admits that a certain amount of the opportunities she was given were a result of affirmative action, but if she hadn't been willing and able and prepared to do the work "twice as well as a white person", she would never have attained the level of success which she has.

Condi did a lot of work with minority students in Palo Alto after she left the first Bush White House. One approach that had a lot of success was in pairing young blacks with successful blacks in college or faculty positions - mentorships. The president of Stanford worried that she was setting up a miniature "segregated" academic system. Condi writes, "Ironically, that was exactly what I was doing - trying to reproduce elements of my segregated childhood, when teachers did no worry about being called racists for their high expectations and "no victims" approach."

I find it interesting or ironic, myself, that blacks actually did a better job of educating themselves, and succeeding in America, prior to segregation, in some senses. This happened even in the face of horrible discrimination, and appalling lack of funding and supplies. I think the two main reasons for this are that they were usually taught by fellow blacks, who had a vested interest, and a very strong desire, to see their children and their people get the best possible education - teachers like Condi's family, and they had a positive attitude towards education reinforced by families that believed strongly that with hard work and a good education, blacks could truly attain the American Dream.

A great read, all the way around.  

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