Sunday, June 19, 2011

Extraordinary, Ordinary People

    I recently read Condoleeza Rice’s biography/autobiography entitled Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I was intrigued to learn that she grew up in segregated Alabama. Her family endured the white revolt against integration in the tumultuous Civil Rights movement with the bombings and other terrifying and violent events of the 1960’s. Somehow I never learned of her background during her tenure as Secretary of State while in George W. Bush’s administration. Somehow I thought she came from less humble means and was sort of a blue-blood African American. While she does have an impressive pedigree, her parents were just teachers from the southeast, her dad also a Presbyterian minister. Hard-working, tough people who persevered and made the best of a lousy situation. “Whites and blacks lived parallel worlds, their paths crossing uneasily in only a few public places,” she says. They kept to their neighborhoods, their churches, their jobs, their part of town and played it safe in the larger community where majority whites made the rules.

    Having been a small child in the middle of Civil Rights and living up north where there was far less tension, I was sheltered from this insanity. Not that New Englanders aren’t ever prejudiced – I guess most everyone is to an extent – but I missed the drama that played out in the Southern states during that era. (I well remember the hippies though).

    Having grown up above the Mason-Dixon line, I always thought of myself as unbiased, not stupid enough to lower myself to prejudice, but in truth I was plain ignorant. Out in the Boston suburbs I just hadn’t been exposed to many minorities other than Irish Catholics (and in city, there were plenty of them) or the occasional Jewish person. The general sentiment seemed to be liberal open-mindedness toward minorities and blacks…or maybe I just didn’t hear lots of demeaning talk reflecting superior, racist attitudes. That certainly didn’t pervade the culture in New England the way it did in the deep South.

    At my high school in the Philadelphia suburbs, we Christians were actually in the minority in a large Jewish community. I found that a fabulous cultural eye-opener and I learned many new traditions. Today, I very much enjoy my Jewish friends and truly love going to synagogue, and Jewish music, worship and food. Still, this mixing of cultures didn’t have the nasty, "better-than", contentious tone that the white-black dynamic had.

    It wasn’t until I went to college in South Carolina (in the ‘80’s) where and when I began to see how very different those cultures really were. Even nearly 20 years out from integration, there still existed attitudes among girls on my hall who said they “couldn’t room with a black girl”. This absolutely stunned me. I know they looked at me funny when I sang as the only white girl in the Gospel choir. I’m sure I looked very weird.

    The fact that Condoleeza Rice’s parents were able to live in such a hypocritical and unfair society and not be resentful toward white people, is amazing to me. They had their high standards and integrity for their own lives and that of their daughter, and they didn’t capitulate to a victim perspective. Ms. Rice says they aimed to work harder to be better at anything because of their social disadvantage. That she (Condoleeza) pushed herself to achieve stellar personal goals and ultimately break through several political and academic glass ceilings (first black Provost at Stanford University as well as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State), is a testament to her tenacity and honorable parenting of her mother and father. They clearly instilled in her a sense of pride and self worth.

    I hope many people, of all colors, are inspired by her story.


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