My father remembered many days of eating bread sandwiches – bread with mayonnaise and nothing else. On Sundays Grandmother prepared “Sunday Surprise,” but it was no mystery because it was red beans and rice with whatever crayfish Granddaddy and my father could fish from the creek. Yet, there was Granddaddy with nine, leather bound, gold-embossed books: the works of Hugo, Shakespeare, Balzac and others. Each book begins with a summary essay about the author and his work. My grandmother asked how much they had cost. Granddaddy Rice admitted they cost ninety dollars but not to worry because he had purchased them on time. They would only have to pay three dollars per month for the next three years .Grandmother was furious but Granddaddy held his ground and refused to return the books. I am so grateful that he did not give in. One of the proudest days of my life was when my father gave me the five surviving books as I left for the ceremony to receive my Ph.D.
Throughout her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People - a Memoir of Family, Dr. Rice provides a documentary style account of the events of her life as seen through her own eyes. In what may be nearly perfect recall, she recounts events from her early childhood. In one, she has a disagreement with some little girls in the neighborhood. In another, she recalls the bombing of a local church and the ensuing community reaction. Both were related matter-of-factly in wonderful detail, and commentary was provided from her perspective as a child when the events occurred. This has the effect of placing the reader within these events, making them very real.
I remember Mrs. Florence Rice rushing in to say that it must have been a bomb. Everyone immediately wondered if the explosion was in our neighborhood about five minutes away. Within what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes, someone called the church to say that Sixteenth Street Baptist had been bombed.
An hour or so later word came that the bomb had killed four little girls who were in the bathroom. I don’t remember how long it was but we soon knew their names. Back at home we turned on the television. Footage from the bombed out church was all over the news along with the unbelievably sad pictures of little bodies being removed from the wreckage and taken away in hearses. My parents were constantly on the phone to members of the family and to friends across Birmingham. The men of the community took up the neighborhood watch. But I remember feeling, for the first time, that they were really powerless to stop this type of tragedy. I just sat and watched television. When it came time to go to sleep, I asked if I could sleep in my parents’ bed.
I stayed home from school the next day, as did all my friends. My father and mother went to work but I went to my grandmother’s house. She was as dazed as anyone, and just kept saying that the Lord worked in mysterious ways. I remember thinking that these mysterious ways were awfully cruel, but I didn’t say anything to my devout grandmother.
The outrage would settle on our community, but at first we were just sad. Birmingham isn’t that big and everyone knew at least one of those little girls. This was a deeply personal tragedy. My friend Vanessa Hunter only remembers that she saw Denise in the Hallway that Friday. They had talked about not having any homework that weekend. Cynthia and Denise were from the neighborhood. I knew Denise best; though she was older, we would still play dolls together.
These were the times from which Dr. Rice came. Her life is a remarkable journey which began in a segregated society in Alabama and has culminated (thus far) with a career that includes the positions of National Security Advisor and United States Secretary of State. Equally fascinating is her political experience, although the focus of the book remains squarely on her family. When discussing the Bush presidential campaign of 1999, she wrote:
I loved the pace and the sense of being part of an adventure. Life had settled into a nice post-Provost pattern and I was quite content. I would discuss the campaign frequently with Daddy. When I arranged to have George W. Bush meet my father during a trip to Palo Alto in the Fall of 1999, Daddy was hooked. He peppered me every night with questions that I couldn’t answer about campaign strategy. “How in the world did we screw up in New Hampshire? George Bush isn’t getting through to people that he is going to be different. That is what people need to know.” John Rice was a loyal republican. He loved Governor Bush and my association with the campaign.
Extraordinary, Ordinary People is at once interesting, endearing and inspiring. For educators, it is a must read, reminding us of the value of education. It is also a quite realistic historical account of southern society that, if not gone with the wind, is at least a faded memory. This history is a part of us. It is who we are, and well worth our effort to understand it.