Condoleezza Rice

The US Secretary of State is the most powerful black woman since the Queen of Sheba, writes Bonnie G

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.

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 Bir-mingham, 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.

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 "Morehouse 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. They, too, did not want to live around or go to school with certain black people. In fact, among my own folks, the veteran civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was dub-bed the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People. Some of those Certain People had debutante balls, expensive university educations, exclusive homes, another world.

One high-school boyfriend's mother berated me for showing up to her house on a Sunday without a hat and gloves. She spent the next hour telling me the story of her family, of how her great-great-grandfather had literally purchased his wife out of slavery. I did not even know who my great-great-grandfather was, and as I sat respectfully listening to her, I asked myself how it had come to be that a people with the same origins could have grown so far apart. To understand this striving class is to understand a great deal about Dr Condoleezza Rice.

I first heard the name Condoleezza Rice in the green room at BBC2's Newsnight. A young, white, male news intern, a fellow American, introduced himself and as we talked, I discovered that he had attended Stanford University. He then told me that the provost there had been a black woman, and that - he said this in a whisper - "the US Department of Labour had begun an investigation into bias against women and minorities". Condoleezza Rice had cut their funding. She had rolled back the funding for women and ethnic minorities. I found this impossible to fathom: that a black woman, at university at the same time I was, who must have known about the culture wars, the struggle and everything else that had gone into being black and female in the late Sixties and early Seventies, could do that. And while I was later to discover that Dr Rice was a few years younger than I was when she started university, it would have been impossible for her to have missed the sit-ins, the walkouts that took place at that time.

Yet I knew that she was no simple collabo, as the French would say, no "spook who sits by the door" black woman - merely window-dressing while the real business was done in the back of the shop. Expressions like "credit to the race" came to mind, but I instantly dismissed them, because Dr Rice seemed to have come from nowhere, bypassing the usual power bases of church, university, sorority and all those collectivities that groomed and sent forth the best and the brightest. As far as the rest of us were concerned, she had travelled below the radar. She had been quietly going about her business of achievement and excellence and now she was visible, and she was one of us. Or was she?

"We've been accustomed," states Lola Young, formerly professor at Middlesex University (and now Baroness Young of Hornsey), "to think of black women as being oppressed by gender and racial politics. Here is someone who not only refused merely to settle for victimhood but, having benefited from an era of affirmative action, seems actively to reject such notions."

Thus, the myth of Condoleezza Rice. Raised in the black middle-class enclave of Titusville, Alabama, which was brimming with achievers, Dr Rice simply applied its ethos. Her supporters point out that she has not got where she is because of race. But Condi's career also owes much to the climate created by the civil rights and women's movements, and the federal government's push towards affirmative action. Her initial fellowship at Stanford, where she became a distinguished member of the faculty in the School of Politics, was paid for with university funds reserved for the minority faculty, while her professorship in the political science department was created for her without the customary national search process. This sort of rise would have been unthinkable for a Mary McLeod Bethune, for example. The pioneering African American educationalist and promoter of human rights was just as close to Franklin D Roosevelt as Rice is to George W Bush. Yet it was Dr Bethune's struggle and example that made it possible for a Condoleezza Rice to be acknowledged, supported, nurtured.

In a sense, this is a redundant argument. There can be no question that Rice is an able woman. But if this suggests a hint of Mark Antony's speech in Julius Caesar, perhaps it is well placed. Because I believe that now, for the first time in her life, Condoleezza may fail.

Lola Young again: "We might well expect something of Condoleezza Rice that she can never give, because we each have a fantasy of what we want from an ideal black woman in a powerful position. Obviously, in that respect, she could never satisfy everyone. Her policies need to be analysed in terms that fit with the neoconservatives' and George Bush's political agenda. They should be discussed within a broader context of the generation of North Americans that she has emerged from in recent historical and political and social upheavals."

''Upheaval" is the key word. As difficult as this may sound, it is still almost impossible for any ethnic-minority person in so high a position to separate themselves out of the expectations, projections, hopes and wishes of the matrix from which they emerged, no matter how far removed they believe themselves to be from it. Black Woman plus High Position equals Change, Tumult, Upheaval. Playing against this, as Condi appears to have done, actually plays to it - an old law of physics that will return to haunt her in her new, exalted position. She is exposed as she has never been before. When the Democrats called a debate on her nomination as Secretary of State, I felt a kind of knee-jerk anger at why she was being challenged. No one else, not even Colin Powell, had had to endure an ordeal like that. But Dr Rice would be annoyed at my response. That Titusville ethos excludes any possibility that anything other than her own abilities would ever come into the equation.

On French television recently, Marie-Roger Biloa, the Cameroonian-born, Paris-based publisher of Africa International, was asked if she, as a black woman, was proud of Dr Rice. Biloa gave a wry smile and said that Rice's ascension was "un destin personnel". And it is this personal destiny, so individual, so relentless, and so imminently successful, which is new and fascinating. The eminent professor Stuart Hall is equally intrigued. "How can someone with this past in their bones refashion themselves into the spokesperson and instrument of Bush's domestic attack on the poor - the majority of whom are black - and his international assault on other peoples and civilisations around the world?" he asks. "This suggests she's 'smart' but not, in a deeper sense, a person of tough intelligence or moral conviction."

This is what is in the back of my mind, too. This is what, because of our shared history in the wider sense, troubles me. Our history, I believe, will return to haunt her.

The rise of Condoleezza Rice is a kind of bolt of lightning which illuminates power, allows us to see inside, and to understand that power always seeks to duplicate, to reflect itself.

It does not matter in the end, if that reflection is black and female.

Condoleezza Rice - the CV

Date of birth: 14 November 1954

Place of birth: Birmingham, Alabama, US

Education: 1981: PhD, Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver. 1975: MA, University of Notre Dame. 1974: BA cum laude in political science, University of Denver.

Academic career: 1993 to 1 July 1999: Provost of Stanford University. Professor of political science, Stanford. Senior fellow of the Institute for International Studies. Fellow of the Hoover Institution. Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Political career: 26 January 2005 to date: US Secretary of State

December 2000 to 2004: US national security adviser

1997: federal advisory committee on gender-integrated training in the military

1996: special assistant to the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

1989 to March 1991: director, senior director of Soviet and east European affairs at the National Security Council, and special assistant to the president for national security affairs

1977: intern in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, US State Department

Business history

Boards of directors: Chevron Corporation, Charles Schwab Corporation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Transamerica Corporation, Hewlett Packard, Carnegie Corporation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rand Corporation, National Council for Soviet and East European Studies, the Mid-Peninsula Urban Coalition

Boards of trustees: University of Notre Dame and the international advisory council of J P Morgan; also the San Francisco Symphony board of governors

Community work: founding board member of the Centre for a New Generation, an educational fund. Vice-president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula

Interests/other: A child prodigy, Rice had ambitions of becoming a concert pianist. Aged 15, she was admitted to the University of Denver, and graduated at the age of 19. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She was the youngest, first female and first non-white provost of Stanford. In August 2004, Forbes magazine named her the world's most powerful woman.

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Condoleezza Rice