My parents were anxious to give me a head start in
life—perhaps a little too anxious. My first memory of
confronting them and in a way declaring my independence was a
conversation concerning their ill-conceived attempt to send me
to first grade at the ripe age of three. My mother was teaching
at Fairfield Industrial High School in Alabama, and the idea was
to enroll me in the elementary school located on the same campus.
I don’t know how they talked the principal into going along,
but sure enough, on the first day of school in September 1958,
my mother took me by the hand and walked me into Mrs. Jones’
I was terrified of the other children and of Mrs. Jones, and
I refused to stay. Each day we would repeat the scene, and each
day my father would have to pick me up and take me to my
grandmother’s house, where I would stay until the school day
ended. Finally I told my mother that I didn’t want to go back
because the teacher wore the same skirt every morning. I am sure
this was not literally true. Perhaps I somehow already understood
that my mother believed in good grooming and appropriate
attire. Anyway, the logic of my argument aside, Mother and
Daddy got the point and abandoned their attempt at really early
I now think back on that time and laugh. John and Angelena
were prepared to try just about anything — or to let me try just
about anything — that could be called an educational opportunity.
They were convinced that education was a kind of armor shielding
me against everything — even the deep racism in Birmingham
and across America.
They were bred to those views. They were both born in the
South at the height of segregation and racial prejudice — Mother
just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1924 and Daddy in
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1923. They were teenagers during
the Great Depression, old enough to remember but too young to
adopt the overly cautious financial habits of their parents. They
were of the first generation of middle-class blacks to attend historically
black colleges — institutions that previously had been for
the children of the black elite. And like so many of their peers,
they rigorously controlled their environment to preserve their
dignity and their pride.
Objectively, white people had all the power and blacks had
none. “The White Man,” as my parents called “them,” controlled
politics and the economy. This depersonalized collective noun
spoke to the fact that my parents and their friends had few interactions
with whites that were truly personal. In his wonderful
book Colored People, Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates
Jr. recalled that his family and friends in West Virginia addressed
white people by their professions—for example, “Mr. Policeman”
or “Mr. Milkman.” Black folks in Birmingham didn’t even have
that much contact. It was just “The White Man.”
Certainly, in any confrontation with a white person in Alabama
you were bound to lose. But my parents believed that you
could alter that equation through education, hard work, perfectly
spoken English, and an appreciation for the “finer things”
in “their” culture. If you were twice as good as they were, “they”
might not like you but “they” had to respect you. One could
find space for a fulfilling and productive life. There was nothing
worse than being a helpless victim of your circumstances. My
parents were determined to avoid that station in life. Needless to
say, they were even more determined that I not end up that way.
My parents were not blue bloods. Yes, there were blue bloods
who were black. These were the families that had emerged during
Reconstruction, many of whose patriarchs had been freed
well before slavery ended. Those families had bloodlines going
back to black lawyers and doctors of the late nineteenth century;
some of their ancestral lines even included political figures such
as Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black United States senator.
There were pockets of these families in the Northeast and a large
colony in Chicago. Some had attended Ivy League schools, but
others, particularly those from the South, sent their children to
such respected institutions as Meharry Medical College, Fisk,
Morehouse, Spelman, and the Tuskegee Institute. In some cases
these families had been college-educated for several generations.
My mother’s family was not from this caste, though it
was more patrician than my father’s. Mattie Lula Parrom, my
maternal grandmother, was the daughter of a high-ranking official,
perhaps a bishop, in the African Methodist Episcopal
Church. Though details about her father, my great-grandfather,
are sketchy, he was able to provide my grandmother with a first-rate
education for a “colored” girl of that time. She was sent to
a kind of finishing school called St. Mark’s Academy and was
taught to play the piano by a European man who had come from
Vienna. Grandmother had rich brown skin and very high cheekbones,
exposing American Indian blood that was obvious, if ill-defined.
She was deeply religious, unfailingly trusting in God,
My grandfather Albert Robinson Ray III was one of six siblings,
extremely fair-skinned and possibly the product of a white
father and black mother. His sister Nancy had light eyes and
auburn hair. There was also apparently an Italian branch of the
family on his mother’s side, memorialized in the names of successive
generations. There are several Altos; my mother and her
grandmother were named Angelena; my aunt was named Genoa
(though, as southerners, we call her “Gen-OH-a”); my cousin is
Lativia; and I am Condoleezza, all attesting to that part of our
Granddaddy Ray’s story is a bit difficult to tie down because
he ran away from home when he was thirteen and did not reconnect
with his family until he was an adult. According to family
lore, Granddaddy used a tire iron to beat a white man who
had assaulted his sister. Fearing for his life, he ran away and,
later, found himself sitting in a train station with one token in
his pocket in the wee hours of the morning. Many years later,
Granddaddy would say that the sound of a train made him feel
lonely. His last words before he died were to my mother. “Angelena,”
he said, “we’re on this train alone.”
In any case, as Granddaddy sat alone in that station, a white
man came over and asked what he was doing there at that hour
of the night. For reasons that are not entirely clear, “Old Man
Wheeler,” as he was known in our family, took my grandfather
home and raised him with his sons. I remember very well going
to my grandmother’s house in 1965 to tell her that Granddaddy
had passed away at the hospital. She wailed and soon said,
“Somebody call the Wheeler boys.” One came over to the house
immediately. They were obviously just like family.
I’ve always been struck by this story because it speaks to the
complicated history of blacks and whites in America. We came to
this country as founding populations—Europeans and Africans.
Our bloodlines have crossed and been intertwined by the ugly,
sexual exploitation that was very much a part of slavery. Even in
the depths of segregation, blacks and whites lived very close to
one another. There are the familiar stories of black nannies who
were “a part of the family,” raising the wealthy white children for
whom they cared. But there are also inexplicable stories like that
of my grandfather and the Wheelers.
We still have a lot of trouble with the truth of how tangled
our family histories are. These legacies are painful and remind
us of America’s birth defect: slavery. I remember all the fuss
about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings a few years back. Are
we kidding? I thought. Of course Jefferson had black children. I can also
remember being asked how I felt when I learned that I apparently
had two white great-grandfathers, one on each side of the
family. I just considered it a fact—no feelings were necessary. We
all have white ancestors, and some whites have black ancestors.
Once at a Stanford football game, my father and I sat in front
of a white man who reached out his hand and said, “My name is
Rice too. And I’m from the South.” The man blanched when my
father suggested we might be related.
It is just easier not to talk about all of this or to obscure it
with the term “African American,” which recalls the immigration
narrative. There are groups such as Mexican Americans, Korean
Americans, and German Americans who retain a direct link to
their immigrant ancestors. But the fact is that only a portion of
those with black skin are direct descendants of African immigrants,
as is President Barack Obama, who was born of a white
American mother and a Kenyan father. There is a second narrative,
which involves immigrants from the West Indies such as
Colin Powell’s parents. And what of the descendants of slaves in
the old Confederacy? I prefer “black” and “white.” These terms
are starker and remind us that the first Europeans and the first
Africans came to this country together—the Africans in chains.
The Rays and the Rices
One day Granddaddy Ray, now a coal-mining engineer,
passed a beautiful young girl drawing water at a well.
He introduced himself, but when he learned that she was only
sixteen, he refrained from trying to date her. When she was finally
old enough, Mattie Lula Parrom and Albert Ray married.
Albert was industrious and worked three jobs for most of his
life. He labored in the mines during the week, a profession that
saddled him with emphysema and heart disease and gave him a
deep admiration for John L. Lewis and the coal miners union;
he sheared horses in the evening, a skill that he’d been taught
by Mr. Wheeler; and on the weekends he built houses. Granddaddy’s
day began every morning at four o’clock with Grandmother
cooking a big breakfast of steak or bacon and eggs to
sustain him through the hard workday ahead.
The Rays were proud people. They settled in Hooper City,
Alabama, which in those days was pretty far outside the city limits
of Birmingham. Even when I was a child, my grandparents’ home
felt as though it were in the country, not a city. Life was apparently
pleasant, though there were some tensions between my mother
and the daughter of the owner of the Italian grocery store, who
seemed to have traded racial insults on a fairly regular basis.
Mattie and Albert Ray were landowners who built their
house with their own hands. The white wood-framed home was
large for its time, on a corner lot with a big pecan tree in the front
yard. It had eight large rooms, including a music room where my
grandmother taught piano. Grandmother loved fine things, and
the heavy mahogany furniture, always purchased with cash, survives
in various family members’ houses—as well as my own—to
this very day.
Still, Grandmother Ray was frugal. When Granddaddy lost
his job at the mine, he worried that they might lose the house.
But my grandmother had saved enormous amounts of money
in a mattress, allowing them to pay off the bank and to acquire
My aunts and uncle remember their parents’ determination
to maintain their dignity despite the degrading circumstances of
Birmingham. The children were constantly reminded, “You are
a Ray!” This was both an admonition to let nothing hold them
back and occasionally a rebuke when my grandparents disapproved
of their behavior. They were never allowed to use a “colored”
restroom or water fountain. “Wait until you get home,”
they were told. And my grandparents always made sure that they
had a car so that no one had to ride in the back of the bus.
My mother had five siblings. Albert junior, Mattie, and my
mother were born very close together in the early 1920s. Uncle
Alto and Aunt Genoa, who went by Gee, made their entrance
about a decade later. My grandparents were not themselves
college-educated, but they were determined that their children
would be. Though they believed in honest hard work, they
wanted their children to have an easier life than they’d had.
As it turned out, this took some doing. The eldest child,
Albert, was difficult to educate. Albert started school at Miles
College in Fairfield, Alabama, not far from Birmingham. But
my restless uncle left school and went north to Pennsylvania
with his young bride and first child to seek his fame and fortune.
When my grandfather learned that Albert was working
in the steel mills, he got on the train, brought Albert and his
young family back to Birmingham, and insisted he return to
school. My grandfather had had to work in the coal mines, but
the steel mills were not good enough for his son. Albert did
eventually finish college and became a quite successful Presbyterian
On the other hand, Mattie and my mother finished Miles in
the requisite four years. They lived at home and drove to college
each day. Both were stunningly beautiful. Mattie looked like her
mother, sharing her rich brown complexion, high cheekbones,
and long, wavy black hair. My mother looked like her father, fair-skinned
with the same round face that I have and long, straight
brownish hair. As little girls they were favored by adults because
they were so cute. One of my most cherished photographs shows
five-year-old Mattie and three-year-old Angelena as “calendar
girls” for the local barbershop.
In college the “Ray girls,” as they were called, were popular,
with outgoing Mattie becoming a majorette and my more
reserved mother breaking out of character by becoming a cheerleader.
Mattie, who played high school and collegiate tennis and
basketball, was a real athlete. My mother, however, was not. In
order to fulfill her physical education requirement, she created
a scrapbook. Her teacher gave her a B for the beautiful work but
told her he just couldn’t give her an A when she didn’t even break
a sweat. This was very much my mother. She was an artist and a
lady, and she didn’t really believe that women should play sports
or, heaven forbid, perspire. I can’t remember my mother ever
picking up a bat or a ball of any kind, and though she later learned
to enjoy spectator sports with my father and me, she never fully
came to terms with my tomboy tendencies.
After college Mattie and Angelena continued to live at home.
My mother and her sister had many friends, but they were clearly
each other’s best friends. Life in segregated Birmingham was in
some ways pretty simple: family, church, work, and a social life
built around black fraternities and private clubs. Mother and her
sister became well-regarded teachers at the same high school,
though their perpetual tardiness led their father to set the house
clocks far ahead to force them to be on time.
They’d been taught music by their mother and grandmother
and on Sundays played organ and piano for Baptist churches.
Although they were Methodists, the Baptists paid better. They
had to learn to play gospel and improvise by ear, something that
those who read music sometimes find hard. I certainly do. But it
was apparently not so difficult for my mother and Mattie. I asked
about this once when I played for a Baptist church and found
myself unable to follow the preacher when he’d “raise a song.”
“Mother,” I said, “he starts in no known key. How am I supposed
to find him?” “Just play in C,” she said. “He’ll come right back to
you.” It was good advice, but I never mastered playing gospel the
way my mother and Mattie did.
On the weekend, the girls went to fraternity and social club
dances in dresses that Mattie, who could sew beautifully, made
from whatever material they liked. They loved clothes. My
mother once said that her meager teacher’s salary was already
owed to fine clothing stores such as Burger-Phillips and Newberry’s
the minute she got it. They took trips to shop in downtown
Birmingham, where their really light-skinned acquaintances
would “pass” as white so that they could go to lunch counters and
bring hot dogs out to their waiting, darker-skinned friends.
I’ve heard many friends and family say that they never thought
my mother would marry. She was so close to her family, extremely
reserved, sharp-tongued, and, despite her beauty, headed
for spinsterhood. But one day she went to work at Fairfield Industrial
High, where she’d been teaching for several years. There
was a lot of buzz about the new athletic director and assistant
football coach. Tall, dark-skinned, and extremely athletic, he
was powerfully built with a deep, resonant voice. And he was a
preacher who happened to be single.
Mother claimed that John Wesley Rice Jr. first saw her walking
down the hallway in a red polka-dot dress and red, very high-heeled
strappy shoes. He was leaning against the wall, filing his
fingernails and hoping to have a chance to say hello. He claimed
that it was she who had made the first move, dressing that way to
catch his attention.
Daddy had come to Birmingham after finishing Johnson C.
Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’d started
school at Stillman College in Alabama, but when World War II
broke out, Granddaddy decided to send him to Smith, where he
could attend college and then go on to seminary. For reasons that I
don’t know, Granddaddy didn’t want his son to fight in the war.
I don’t think he had any political or philosophical objection to
the war. Perhaps he was just fearful of losing his only son, whom
he counted on to follow in his footsteps into religious ministry.
Daddy wanted to go into the army but acceded to his father’s
wishes that he continue his work in the seminary. He did do
some chaplain’s work for soldiers returning from the front, but I
think he always felt a little guilty for not having fought in World
War II. He had enormous admiration for those who were in the
particularly his first cousin, Philip, who served in Vietnam
and retired as a colonel in the air force. They became exceedingly
close and remained so until Daddy’s death.
In any case, by the time Daddy arrived at Fairfield High
School, he had already been pastor of his first church and had
worked several jobs simultaneously. On the weekends he played
and coached semiprofessional football in Burlington, North
Carolina. Sometimes he worked as a waiter to supplement his income,
and he even tried opening a restaurant, which failed miserably.
Until the day he died he always tipped generously, saying
that waiting tables was the hardest work he had ever done.
My father had grown up in a family dominated by his father,
John Wesley Rice Sr. My paternal grandfather was born in
Eutaw (pronounced “UH-tah”), Alabama. There were apparently
three branches of the Rice family, each emanating from
a different slave-owning brother in Greene County, Alabama,
about an hour’s drive from the Mississippi border. Not many
blacks owned land in those days, so my grandfather’s family
worked the land of others as sharecroppers. Granddaddy’s father
was illiterate—and may not have been his biological father — but
his mother, my great-grandmother Julia Head, was a freed slave
who’d learned to read. It isn’t clear who educated her, since it
was illegal to teach slaves to read. But she was apparently a favored
house slave, and there is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that
Julia had run Union soldiers off the plantation and protected the
horses during the
Civil War. To the day she died, she would sit
on her porch with a shotgun in her lap and a pipe in her mouth.
Perhaps she thought she’d have to do it again.
According to my father, Granddaddy Rice was not a favored
son because, unlike his siblings, he was very dark-skinned. You
will notice that I have by now described the skin color of each
of my relatives. Unfortunately, it mattered. One of the scars of
slavery was a deep preoccupation with skin color in the black
community. The lighter your skin, the better-off you were. This
bias extended to other facial features: “thin and Caucasian” was
preferred to “thick and Negroid,” just as straight hair was “good”
compared to kinky hair, which was “bad.” The repercussions were
significant in my parents’ time, when no self-respecting black
school would select a dark-skinned homecoming queen. There
was even rumored to be a “paper bag test” for membership in the
best clubs—if you were any darker than a paper bag, you needn’t
bother to apply.
By the time I came along, skin color and other physical features
were less important, though not irrelevant. My father loved
that I had my mother’s long hair, despite the fact that mine, unlike
hers, was a coarse, thick, and somewhat unruly mop. When
I finally cut it in college, it was pretty clear that he thought I’d
given up some sort of social advantage. But by then the “black
is beautiful” aesthetic and Afro hairstyles had introduced a new
concept of what was appealing.
One can imagine, though, what it was like for my very dark-skinned
grandfather in the first half of the twentieth century. He
was given the worst land to work and not much encouragement
from his father. But his mother taught him to read and sent him
to school. He had big dreams and loved books. So when he was
about nineteen, he decided to get a college education. He asked
people, in the parlance of the day, how a “colored” man could go
to college. They told him about little Stillman College, which
was about thirty miles away in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He saved his
cotton and paid the school.
After one year, though, Granddaddy Rice ran out of cotton
and had no way to pay his tuition. He was told that he would have
to leave. Thinking quickly, he pointed to some of his fellow students.
“How are those boys going to college?” he asked. He was
told that they’d earned a scholarship and that he could have one
too if he wanted to be a Presbyterian minister. Without missing
a beat, Granddaddy Rice replied, “Well, that’s exactly what I had
in mind.” As they would do several times in my family’s history,
the Presbyterians educated this young black man.
John Wesley Rice Sr. soon met Theresa Hardnett, a pretty
half-Creole from Baton Rouge. The Hardnett family produced
educated girls, including two who were among the first black registered
nurses to graduate from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee
Institute. My grandmother, though, left home when she was
seventeen and married my grandfather shortly thereafter. She set
out with him on his mission of church building and educational
While my mother’s family was landowning and settled,
Daddy’s family lived the life of an itinerant preacher. As a result,
my parents held very different views on the importance of land.
Mother always wanted to own a house and sometimes, a little
pointedly, reminded Daddy that he’d grown up moving from
place to place and living in “other people’s houses.” Her family,
on the other hand, had owned land. Daddy didn’t really care
and felt a bit tied down by the financial responsibility of home
ownership. While they did eventually own property and a house,
their differences in perspective on this matter remained a source
of some conflict throughout their marriage.
In any case, Granddaddy Rice worked mostly in Louisiana,
founding a church and a school next door. Sometimes he
found it necessary to work in Mississippi and Alabama, leaving
the family behind for a few months in Louisiana. Granddaddy’s
churches were successful because he was a powerful speaker. His
sermons were intellectually sound and biblically based. He made
it clear that he’d studied theology in seminary and was a fully ordained
minister. In his sermons, there was none of the “whooping
and hollering” emotion of the Baptists across town, who had
no formal training. Granddaddy apparently delivered his sermons
without notes. I once told my father that I was grateful
that I’d inherited his exceptional ability to speak off the cuff. He
told me that he was indeed good but not like Granddaddy. “You
should have heard your grandfather,” he said. “He spoke in
The Rice schools were even more successful than the
churches. My grandfather believed that his schools could better
educate black children than the miserable public schools of
the day, and he sought funds from any source he could, whether
it meant contributions from church members, a few cents from
parents in the community, or fifty dollars from rich white people
across town. Granddaddy Rice once told Daddy that “white
guilt” was his best ally in funding his schools. But when a white
church collected a bunch of old textbooks and “donated” them to
my grandfather’s school, he politely declined. It was important,
he explained, that his kids have the most up-to-date reading materials,
just like the white students.
John Rice’s educational evangelism sometimes brought him
into conflict with the Catholic hierarchy in Louisiana, which
saw his efforts as competing with its own education ministries.
Granddaddy Rice maintained that the Catholics had put some of
his schools out of business in several parishes. This led to a kind
of militant Protestantism in the Rice family. My father, a tolerant
and educated man, opposed John F. Kennedy’s presidential
bid less because the Massachusetts senator was a Democrat and
more because he worried that Kennedy, as a practicing Catholic,
might need to answer to the Vatican.
When I went to Baton Rouge for my grandmother’s funeral
in 1986, I saw one of Granddaddy’s surviving schools in Scotlandville,
on the outskirts of the city. It had been remodeled,
but it was still sitting in the same dusty field where it had been
built. Several former students had come back to pay homage to
what my grandparents had done for them. “Your granddaddy
was a giant,” one person said. Another, who was a schoolteacher,
acknowledged that she never would have gone to college but for
John Rice Sr. Her story was repeated several times. Granddaddy’s
educational evangelism compelled him to go door-to-door in
the poor neighborhoods around him and impress upon parents
the importance of sending their kids to college. Then he would
go to colleges—usually Presbyterian schools such as Stillman,
Johnson C. Smith, and Knoxville College in Tennessee — and
“make arrangements” for
the kids to go there. In turn, he would
recruit young teachers from the historically black colleges with
which he had these relationships. He was zealously committed to
education because he believed that it had transformed him, and
he was determined to spread its benefits.
When it came to his own family, he was even more insistent.
My father and his sister, Theresa, attended schools their father
had founded. The family had little money and lived in any house
the congregation could provide. Several times when Daddy was
a child, Granddaddy decided that his work in a particular Louisiana
community was done and the family would move on. If
Daddy and his sister resented the upheaval, there was no trace
of it in their recounting of their childhood. When it came time
for high school, Granddaddy placed his kids in Baton Rouge’s
McKinley High, which in 1916 held the distinction of graduating
the first class of black students in the state of Louisiana.
Growing up, my father was a very good athlete but not a great
student, as he remembered. It was a struggle to get him to study,
and he didn’t love to read, though he loved history and politics.
The whole family was taken with and followed closely the famed
Louisiana governor and U.S. senator Huey Long. Daddy’s uncle
on his mother’s side, Sylvester, would go down to the courthouse
and sit in the “colored” section when Huey Long was a trial attorney.
Family lore contends that Long wouldn’t start a trial until
Sylvester was seated. Daddy remembered the family gathered
around the radio listening to Huey Long speak and the absolute
devastation they felt years later when Long died after being
shot at the state capitol building. “They turned on every light in
the capitol that night,” he recalled. “The funeral procession was
miles long.” I suspect this event loomed larger than life
in my father’s
memory, as is often the case with childhood recollections.
But the Rices really loved Long, a populist politician whom they
saw as caring about common people—even black people.
For the most part, Daddy seems to have enjoyed less serious
pursuits. He loved to play preacher. One day he and his sister recreated
a funeral that their father had just conducted. They went
to the church, set their dolls up in the pews, and laid one doll on
the altar table to mimic a casket. Theresa was playing the piano,
and my father had begun to preach when one of the dolls in the
pews fell with a heavy thud. They ran out as fast as possible, sure
that they’d somehow awakened the dead.
Theresa, unlike the young John Rice, was an intellectual and
a somewhat somber personality from the day she was born. She
read constantly and seemed to take personally the suffering and
sorrow around her. My father illustrated this in a story about a
certain Easter. The seven-or-so-year-old John was thrilled with
his new suit for the Easter program and the basket of candy that
the Easter Bunny had brought. But nine-year-old Theresa cried.
When my grandfather asked what was wrong, Aunt Theresa said
that she was reflecting on the bad things that had been done to
That in a nutshell captured the difference between Daddy
and his sister. Daddy was an easygoing personality who didn’t
always take life too seriously. He was a popular kid who would
become an outgoing adult.
Theresa was reclusive, brilliant, and determined to follow
in her father’s intellectual footsteps. She would later go on to
become one of the first black women to receive a doctorate in
English literature from the University of Wisconsin. Thus I am
not even the first PhD in my family.
Aunt Theresa wrote books on Charles Dickens, including
one called Dickens and the Seven Deadly Sins. When I was about
eight years old, we were visiting Aunt Theresa in Baton Rouge,
where she was teaching at Southern University. When I saw that
she was reading A Tale of Two Cities, I asked whether she’d ever
read that book before. “I have read this novel at least twenty-
five times,” she said. I remember thinking that this was a terribly
boring way to spend one’s life. For years it soured my thoughts of
being a professor, since I associated the vocation with the drudgery
of reading the same book twenty-five times.
This extract was made available on the internet by the SCRIBD website.