From Birmingham to Baghdad
I, Condoleezza Rice, was leaning over the kitchen sink, hacking up a half-dozen or so rotisserie chickens and slinging the parts into a serving dish in time for the first of the party guests. I filled the bowls with popcorn and peanuts, brewed a pot of French roast and pulled a lost toddler out of the laundry room. I sidled up to Arnold Schwarzenegger and gave him a big old smooch. And when the Devil walked in the door, he took one look at me and said, "You win."
Yes, it was Halloween night and I, Patricia J. Williams, had gotten myself up in the guise of the soon-to-be Secretary of State of the United States of America. I had it down, from the proper little suit to the neatly tucked bob of a hairdo. And it was funny for a while--vampires deflected, ghouls leapt back. After a time, I took the mask off, but people still called me Condoleezza for the rest of the evening. And that felt strange and sad somehow.
That woman haunts most of us middle-class black women of a certain age. All those gold stars from the time she was 3, the churchy good-girlness, those closely guarded borders. A couple of years ago, Nicholas Lemann did a piece in The New Yorker in which he said that she had a very unusual upbringing in that she was so intensely tutored--the ice-skating instruction, the piano lessons, the French classes. But life in the black middle class was often exhaustingly monitored for nice girls raised in the we-shall-overcome integrationist post-Brown era. It was punishing sometimes, with its emphasis on always being on display, always having to be "twice as good as," always bearing the banner for the generations before. From Ruby Bridges to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, from Barbara Lee to Anita Hill--Condoleezza Rice and her hyper-articulated intelligence is just under the surface of us all, the differences made all the more uncomfortable for the similarities. We were all paralyzed by the bombings in Birmingham.
The day after Rice was nominated, I listened to gleeful talk-radio hosts set out the right wing's new terms of debate about her. It was something on the order of: So who's a racist now, scumbags? We're the ones who love her. Liberals hate her. And you affirmatively active black people must be choking on a bone.
They're wrong. Nobody "hates" Condoleezza Rice. If she's not exactly liked it's because her beliefs are at odds with approximately 92 percent of African-Americans, whose commitment to the progressive programs of the civil rights movement runs strong and deep. It is odd for many of us to see Bush touting her as embodying that precious tradition of nonviolent resistance, that liberation theology so dedicated to honoring the memory of four young girls killed as they worshiped. If it's nice to see a black face in high places, that pleasure is more than outweighed by Rice's deployment as spokeswoman for an unprecedented policy of preemptive war--the public face of an undisciplined, frightened, chaotically mismanaged yet supposedly liberatory force that thoughtlessly bombs mosques with unarmed civilians inside.
It is true that the far right seems to love her. When I listened to Sean Hannity's show, members of his largely white male audience were phoning in to say that they wanted to marry her, that she was just the smartest little girl they'd ever seen. Then they'd laugh and laugh and laugh. "I just love her to death!" cackled one caller.
This unusual affection is apparently mutual. The day after her elevation was announced, the front page of the New York Times carried a photo of Rice gazing adoringly at Bush. It was quite a kittenish pose; she looked so young and coy one was compelled to imagine that her toes were pointed inward, like Minnie Mouse. All that was missing was a big bow in her hair. Indeed, no one seemed to know what to make of that conspicuously odd goof, when she said, "My husb----I mean the President." There was genuine pathos in the moment, like she'd been drawing little hearts in her notebook, the silly thing, dreaming of the day she could grow up and marry her homeroom teacher. Or maybe she was more like the smartest kid in the class who slips the captain of the football team the answers to the test because it's her only route to recognition if not popularity. He's still going to marry the cheerleader; but she'll be shielded from the torment of loneliness that can sometimes follow the bookish and the brightest.
Let me make a leap here, and bring in the name of John Danforth, ambassador to the United Nations, but possible nominee to the Supreme Court. I've been rereading his book, Resurrection--the one in which he and Clarence Thomas hold hands and listen to "Onward Christian Soldiers" in the Senate bathroom, and the one that ends with these words: "Clarence had risen. Alleluia!" This would also be the book that hovers lovingly over various descriptions of Anita Hill as "aggressive," "ideological," "argumentative," "outspoken" and too ardently "pro-woman."
Condoleezza Rice is supposedly none of those things; and yet she is all those things: She's hard as nails, mind like a steel trap, ideological as all get-out. But her self-presentation belies the degree to which she is ideological--rather, she comes across as obedient, dutiful, understated, an anchor in the storm. I can't help thinking that to be her, one would have to live in fear of what would happen if you veered from the path of conformity. Would people get angry at you and speculate about you and Coke cans? Or whether you fit the clinical definition of an erotomaniac?
Certainly no one speculates about whether Condoleezza Rice has erotomania. She is so firmly straitlaced that she's never had a boyfriend or a romantic relationship that anyone knows about. Perhaps that's just because she's actually managed to create a zone of privacy around herself; if so, more power to her. But from a certain perspective, she seems also to embody a more contradictory legacy of Birmingham than any of us would like to admit: She embodies a "safe" but weirdly racialized prurient prudishness. She is a little girl who is older and wiser than she should be, yet a middle-aged woman who acts younger and more flirtatious than she should. She is a tightly fitted mask of compulsive politeness pulled over both great grief and corrosive, unhealed cruelties.