Condoleezza Rice: The US Secretary of State Is the Most Powerful Black Woman since the Queen of Sheba, Writes Bonnie Greer. to Understand Her, You First Have to Understand the Striving Class She Came From-And Why Her Own History May Return to Haunt Her

Article excerpt

I was at school with a Gaston. I cannot recall now whether we were together at my primary school, which was run by a formidable order of black nuns; or at my all-girl secondary school, run by white nuns who taught us that we black girls were a cut above. At any rate, Brenda, I think her name was, did not need a nun, and certainly not a white one, to tell her that she was special. She had been brought up that way. The only daughter of two teachers, she had taken ballet lessons since the age of five, spoke and wrote Spanish to a high degree, was the lead soprano in Messiah at school, was going to be the first black woman Pope, and most fascinating of all, she wore the most intricately styled ribbons in her hair every day.

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Her confidence made her beautiful. We were pathetic little weeds to her bright, noonday sun. What struck me most was the way she answered questions in class with that sort of speed and concision that is often taken for brilliance. She was incredibly neat and utterly precise, never actually mixing with us, always a bit apart. There was no doubt in our minds that she was going to be Somebody.

Much later, I discovered that she was related to the Gastons of Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most distinguished black families in the South. It never dawned on me that such creatures existed in the land of the Klan and civil rights marches. To us northerners, "Bombingham", as we called it on account of the horrific bombing of black establishments by white supremacists, seemed like a place closer to the infernal regions than to anything else.

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Yet in the midst of this, the Gastons thrived and, on a lower level of that exalted circle, so did the Rice family, whose flower is an only child they named Condoleezza.

Dr Condoleezza Rice is the most powerful black woman since the Queen of Sheba. By now her story is well known: the only daughter of solidly middle-class parents who themselves came from families with a history of achievement. Ice-skater, pianist, linguist, foreign-policy expert, the youngest this, the only that. There are stories of brave ancestors and striving predecessors. Yet the story of these black middle-class families has always been overshadowed by the more dramatic narrative of the working class--the ones, like those I came from, with little or no education: the sharecroppers and factory workers, the ones who too often ended up hanging from a rope or weighted down in a river deep in a Delta forest for whistling at a white woman.

Within the black community, both here and in the United States, there has always been a class divide, just as with everyone else. It has been a fissure, buried from time to time for the greater good, but it has always been there. People like me could only smile when a film-maker like Spike Lee made movies about the ghetto. To the majority culture, he was just another black director. To black people, he was a "More-house man", roughly the equivalent of an Old Etonian, brought up in a cultured, refined and elegant environment. You could hear it in his speech, see it in the way he handled himself. Everyone roots for Spike, but we know his roots, too.

Once, while making a programme for Radio 4 about black people and black issues in the pre-civil rights era, I asked an elderly woman in Atlanta what her childhood had been like. I assumed that it had been full of terror, like my father's Mississippi boyhood. Instead I was told a story I had never heard before. She had been told by her mother not to ride the buses, therefore she never really encountered segregation. Any white people who disrespected her were simply ignorant, lower-class creatures. Anyway, she lived much better than they and was better-educated. Her people joined Dr King out of class solidarity, as well as a belief in what he was fighting for, but--well, they could see white people's point. …