Condoleezza Rice and the Complexities of Race

Last summer, in August 2010, I gave a presentation on genealogy and genetics to the board of directors of the Aspen Institute at our annual board meeting. After showing a clip from our previous PBS series, Faces of America, I talked about the recent American fascination with finding one’s roots. So many generations of Americans have tried to forget their roots, their origins, their “non-Americanness.” But it seems that the era of willful forgetting is over. I told the board how we go about finding a person’s ancestors, and shared some of my favorite stories from African American Lives and Faces of America. I also introduced them to the wonders of ancestry tracing using a person’s DNA.

As I returned to my seat, I saw Condoleezza Rice talking with Madeleine Albright. I recognized an opportunity and jumped at it. Both women agreed right away to be in the series. “Of course,” Madeleine joked, “we will be great for the series. We have the same father!” Madeleine was referring to the fact that her father, Joseph Korbel, was Condoleezza Rice’s mentor at the University of Denver.

After researching Condi’s genealogy, we were able to take her back to two generations of slave ancestors. A notable story arose when we found her great, great grandmother Sinai or “Zina,”a single woman who bore five children. It is exceptionally fortunate when an African American can discover two generations of their slave ancestors by name. Condi reflected at the end of our interview that she came to our session thinking of herself as the descendant of strong black men. Instead, she left realizing that her life and career stem from the accomplishments of strong black women. On the DNA front, both Condi’s female line and the male line of her father go to Africa; nevertheless, her admixture reveals that she has a high proportion of European ancestry. This truth shows both the remarkable extent of inter-racial mixing during slavery, as well as the fact that “race” extends far beyond our skin color.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Samuel L. Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, and Ruth Simmons.