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.