A profoundly moving and deeply personal memoir by the co-host of National Public Radio’s flagship program All Things Considered.
While exploring the hidden conversation on race unfolding throughout America in the wake of President Obama’s election, Michele Norris discovered that there were painful secrets within her own family that had been willfully withheld. These revelations—from her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer to her maternal grandmother’s job as an itinerant Aunt Jemima in the Midwest—inspired a bracing journey into her family’s past, from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South.
The result is a rich and extraordinary family memoir—filled with stories that elegantly explore the power of silence and secrets—that boldly examines racial legacy and what it means to be an American.
My father was one of those people who are most comfortable at the fringes, away from the action center stage. He did not need or crave attention. Instead, he was driven by the need to reassure others that everything was going to be all right. Belvin Norris Jr. was a ﬁxer. An eternal optimist to the core. You could see it in his smile. As a grown man he still grinned like a schoolboy, and you could not help but grin along with him. His vibe was contagious. Kindness is usually seen as altruistic. But it can also be an act of desperation, satisfying a deep-seated need to avoid the mind’s darker places. Benevolence, for some, is a survival tactic.
Even in his last hours my father practiced benevolence, always looking out for everybody else. Moments after the doctor delivered devastating news about his health, my father, still smiling, pointed to an infected cut on my left hand. It was his way of prodding the emergency room physician to turn his attention to me. The victim opting to be the benefactor.
Dad took ill in June 1988, while visiting his brother Simpson in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The minute he called me I knew something awful had happened. His voice was graveled, his words rubbery. He couldn’t put a sentence together, and the failed effort only added to his frustration. He had lost control of his speech, but he managed to hold on to his sunny disposition. Although his words were incomprehensible, I sensed a false cheer, with each attempt at speech ending on an elevated note—the kind of verbal leap parents of very young children use to mask irritation or fear.
I was working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago at the time. Dad had stopped by to visit me on his way to Uncle Simpson’s house. We had spent a few days going to baseball games and trying to get my kitchen in order. He was relieved to see that I’d ﬁnally learned to enjoy spending time at the stove. I showed off for him with jambalaya and pineapple upside-down cake. It worked. He set small talk aside, went back for seconds, and still had room for a huge piece of cake. When he was ﬁnished he dabbed his mouth and said, “Maybe now you’ll ﬁnd someone who will put up with you.”
To another person, this might have sounded like a dig, but I knew what he meant. I could use my kitchen skills to cook at home and save money and to help “close the deal” when I found the right man. I was twenty-six and living on my own in Chicago. No husband. No roommate. Just me in a second-story duplex apartment with high ceilings, a large kitchen, and actual furniture. For years my father had visited me at various apartments where the most comfortable chair had been either a wooden crate or something recovered from the curb on trash day. He never let me forget an embarrassing episode when I was living in southern California. A neighbor stopped by my Manhattan Beach apartment to borrow a coffee ﬁlter one Saturday morning. She couldn’t stop staring at the wingback armchair in which my father sat reading the Los Angeles Times. “You know, Michele,” she said, “that looks like the chair I threw out for bulk trash pickup a few weeks ago.”
My neighbor left with her borrowed coffee ﬁlter and a piece of my dignity. Lucky for me, my father had a sense of humor and a strong commitment to thrift. He always believed that the prettiest car on the road was the one that was paid in full, and in his book the most attractive chair in my cramped living room that day was the one that had arrived without a price tag. We had a good laugh, and when he left, he snuck an envelope into my jewelry box with “sofa fund” written on the outside.
My father preached that he would always help me as long as I helped myself by working hard and spending smart. I was better at the former than the latter. When he visited me in Chicago in June 1988, he saw that I had earned high marks on both fronts. He appeared healthy during that visit. A week later, when I got the call from Indiana, it seemed I was talking to a man I didn’t know. As soon as I put the phone down, I started packing a bag. I had to get to Fort Wayne fast. By the time I arrived, Dad had already checked into the hospital. The doctors there didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but they knew that something was very wrong and that most likely it had to do with his brain or his central nervous system. The doctors spoke among themselves about anaplastic astrocytomas and radiation therapy. It was a code that could mean only one thing: cancer.
Even in the most terrifying moments at a sterile hospital, there is some comfort in knowing that a world you recognize is just outside and beyond the parking garage. You can ﬁxate on a familiar image as a doctor shaves years off your life with each sentence. He can talk all he wants about therapies and operations, but you’re thinking of the parking lot where you taught your daughter to drive, or the gas station that uses red reﬂective press-on letters to spell out a different Bible verse each week, like “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” While the doctor yammers on, you’re thinking of the grizzled gas station attendant who climbs the ladder to change the sign, and wondering what pearl of wisdom he might offer in light of the news you just got.
In Fort Wayne, in a large hospital in an unfamiliar city, we were confronting an unknown illness that had swiftly robbed my father of his ability to carry out the most basic functions. We were looking at complicated surgery and, at best, a long and complex recovery, so the doctors suggested that we quickly move Dad back to Minnesota, where he could be treated closer to home.
We wanted to get Dad on the ﬁrst ﬂight to the Twin Cities, but his gait was unsteady and he seemed increasingly disoriented. He clutched my arm as we walked through the airport; he kept shooting me tight little smiles: reassurance. I wasn’t buying it. By now his speech was so slurred that only I could understand him, and so labored that he wasn’t able even to whisper. It took him so much effort and focus to spit out a sound that it was slightly explosive when it arrived, like a sputtering engine in a hushed area.
At the airport we sat across from two stout middle-aged blond women with wet-set curls and matching pink satin jackets. They must have been on their way to a convention or a sorority gathering; they were electric with excitement and frosted up like high-calorie confections, constantly riﬂing through their pocketbooks for mirrored compacts, then checking their makeup or blotting their lipstick. I remember them so well because they were sitting next to a large Amish or Mennonite family.
The men had long beards and wore suspenders. The women had long braids and long dresses, and their heads were covered by little white hats that looked like fancy French fry baskets. They seemed uncomfortable with the constant chatter of the satin dolls. They, too, noticed the women’s prying eyes and “get a load of this” gestures, though the taciturn demeanor of the Amish rendered them perhaps slightly less interesting specimens than Dad and me.
When my dad tried to lean toward me to ask a question, his words sputtered forth like bricks tumbling from a shelf. The satin dolls found it hard to mind their own business. They stared and pointed every time Dad attempted to speak. They didn’t try to hide their disparagement, one of them harrumphing loud enough for anyone to hear, “Goodness sakes, it’s not even noon yet!”
After spending a lifetime trying to be a model minority— one of the few black men in his neighborhood, at his workplace, or on his daughters’ school committees—my father now sat facing the condemnation of the two blond scolds. They had apparently concluded that he was an early morning lush instead of a gray-haired man ﬁghting a losing battle with a devastating disease.
Here is the conundrum of racism. You know it’s there, but you can’t prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation. Those pink satin ladies were strangers to me, so I have no idea if they would have been as quick to judge a gray-haired white man with impaired speech. However, I do know this: the fact that they were white women added mightily to my father’s humiliation. I knew my father felt the sting of their judgment. I knew it because he kept pushing up his cardigan sleeve and futzing with his wrist, as if he’d left home without his Timex. But it was not the wrist on which he wore his windup watch. It was the wrist where the plastic bracelet had been afﬁxed at the hospital. His awkward gestures were a silent plea to the satin dolls to notice the hospital bracelet. My heart breaks every time I think of the look on his face that day.
The jut of his chin showed indignation, but the sag of his shoulders and the crease in his brow conveyed something different. Something hovering between anger and shame. There was also, however, a hint of grace. I see that now that I have come to understand my father better, as a man who was always in tight control of his emotions. I believe now that he was trying not just to salvage his dignity but also to absolve the two women from dishonor. A less controlled, more impulsive man might have responded by giving those women the ﬁnger to shut them up. My father drew strength from reaching past anger.
The aphorism “Kill them with kindness” might have been penned with a man like Belvin Norris Jr. in mind. By ﬁddling with his wrist he was saying, “If only they knew,” rather than “Shame on you.”
Dad boarded the plane early because the ﬂight crew knew he would need extra time to settle into his seat and because they wanted to check his medical release from the hospital. He was ﬂying alone that morning. I planned to drive his Oldsmobile back to Minneapolis and meet him there the next morning, a decision I have spent a lifetime regretting. Before walking down the jetway, he motioned for the nurse and the ﬂight crew to wait a second. He leaned toward me as if he wanted to tell me something, but he couldn’t get words out. He kept looking over his shoulder, aware of the ﬂight crew watching and waiting, and perhaps wondering whether the satin dolls were also taking it all in. He kissed me on the cheek, a loving but clumsy gesture. His balance was off, so it was almost as if we were bumping heads. I didn’t mind, and I certainly didn’t care who was watching as we locked in a long embrace. My eyes were closed, ﬁghting back tears, so I barely noticed when the ﬂight attendant crept into our circle of grief to gently remind us that they had to stay on schedule. The attendant lightly cupped my father’s elbow and led him away. It is disturbing to see your parent treated like a schoolchild, yet amusing to watch a man grin like a lucky teenager when a pretty woman takes his arm.
As I walked away, the satin dolls gazed at me. They must have overheard the chat about Dad’s medical release because now they wore pouty, ingratiating smiles. Lipstick contrition. I walked past them and smiled back. It hurts to recall my response; I, like my father, had reached beyond anger to offer conciliation instead. I had every right to throw my father’s humiliation in their faces. Spitting at them was, of course, out of bounds, but at the very least I should have served up a scowl.
I should have made them squirm. I should have been the black girl that certain white women are conditioned to fear most.
I didn’t do any of that. I am my father’s daughter, and such caustic gestures weren’t in my DNA. I was raised by a model minority to be a model minority, and to achieve that status, certain impulses had to be suppressed. Years later, I understand both the reason and its consequence.
I was almost out of the waiting area when I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned, thinking it might be one of the women, intent on apologizing, but there was no nail polish on the hand touching my arm. The hand was large and calloused, marked by raised splotches resembling coffee stains. A bearded man held my forearm; he called me “ma’am,” though it sounded like “Mom.” “I’ll watch over your pa,” he said before darting back to join his family.
I wonder what my father had wanted to tell me, but couldn’t, right before he’d boarded the plane. More of his classic lunch-box wisdom? “Learn all you can” or “Save your money” or “Don’t eat too much late at night”? More than twenty years later, as still I mourn, I wonder if he was trying to impart some eternal verity before his ﬁnal ﬂight home to Minneapolis. This would be the last time I saw him alert. Within a day Dad slipped into a coma. Within a week a fast-growing brain tumor took his life.
Excerpted from The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris. Copyright © 2010 by Michele Norris. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“An insightful, elegant rendering of how the history of an American family illuminates the history of our country.” –Toni Morrison
“Exquisite. . . [A] rich account of family history.” –Seattle Times
“Powerful and heartbreaking. . . . [Norris] explores race within her family history while tracing its complex legacy in the United States.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“A riveting, inspiring memoir of an at once singular and representative American family. Norris takes us on a painful yet triumphant journey of self-discovery. . . . Powerful and tender, The Grace of Silence reveals our human complexity in exemplary fashion.” –Henry Louis Gates, Jr., University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, and author of Colored People
“A deeply personal reflection on what her parents and grandparents did and did not tell her about her history and identity as a black woman. . . . A fresh and candid reflection on this most important conversation.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Gracefully written and carefully researched, it offers up long-buried family secrets as a testimony to racism’s power and reach.” —Los Angeles Times
“A powerful plea to readers to doggedly pursue their families’ story lines. She reminds us that speaking candidly about race in America starts not at the president’s teleprompter but at our own dinner tables.” —The Washington Post
“An open and honest examination of race relations in her family’s and the country’s past.” —Chicago Tribune
“Jaw-dropping. Can’t put down. . . . Riveting. . . . [Norris] uses her signature calm and steady voice to open up about her complicated relatives.” —Essence
“A revealing, affectionate and sometimes painful memoir which dispenses with stereotype to get to the heart of what makes a family.” —Gwen Ifill, Moderator, “Washington Week,” PBS
“With learned candor, [Norris] describes the corrosive effect of family stories left untold. . . . We may not hear those stories until we ask for them. But some things simply must be said.” —Ms.
“Revelatory, heart-piercing.” —The Baltimore Sun
“In the hands of a gifted storyteller, a memoir becomes more than a chronicle of the writer’s life. It becomes the history of a time and a place. So it is with this magnificent memoir—one of the most eloquent, moving and insightful memoirs I have ever read.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of the New York Times bestseller Team of Rivals
“Letter-perfect, beguiling. . . . Powerful. . . . Her well rounded view of the world demonstrates wisdom given by her strong, intelligent mother and her hard-working, proud father.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
“Michele Norris takes us on a riveting personal journey from north to south and back again through the tangled landscape of race in America—and teaches anew about the pain and possibilities of our past and future.” —Tom Brokaw, author of New York Times bestsellers The Greatest Generation and Boom
1. Michele Norris discovered family secrets because elders in her family started divulging stories in the wake of Barack Obama's election. What were conversations about race like during the 2008 election? Was there a difference between public and private discussions? Have those conversations changed in the last two years?
2. How did family secrets affect life in the Norris home? What does Norris mean when she says she was “shaped by the weight of silence”? In your own family, have you had the experience of finding out something about a family member that you never knew? Alternatively, have you ever been the keeper of such secrets?
3. In the airport, Norris watches two women misjudge her father as a drunk rather than a very ill man, but chooses not to confront them. How is her decision related to being a “model minority”? Do you understand Norris’s belated desire to be the black girl some white women are conditioned to fear most? What do you think of her statement that “Blacks often feel the dispiriting burden of being perceived willy-nilly as representing an entire race”?
4. While Norris feels certain that the white women’s reaction is informed by race, she cannot be absolutely sure: “Here is the conundrum of racism. You know it’s there, but you can’t prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation.” Have you experienced times when you thought race was a factor but were unable to prove it? What choices have you made to address or ignore the possibility of racist behavior?
5. Norris’s mother and uncle have different perceptions of her grandmother Ione’s work as a traveling Aunt Jemima. While her mother has mixed emotions, her uncle says, “I know a lot of people are ashamed of that image but I am not. . . . She put that costume on and she was a star.” Norris finds a similar range of reactions when she delves into the history of Aunt Jemima. The owner of Mammy’s Cupboard restaurant says, “Sometimes I don’t understand why black folks don’t claim her, because she was theirs first. She’s still theirs, isn’t she?” What’s your answer to that question? What does the Aunt Jemima image mean to you? Does the upgrade to her image destigmatize the logo? What are other examples of complicated images in American commercial life?
6. The Norris family were “block busters” in Minneapolis. Do you live in a community that was or still is segregated by race or class? Why do you think the neighbor who was a displaced person was so unwelcoming to the Norris family?
7. Belvin and Betty Norris were sartorial activists, dressing to impress in all circumstances. Do you understand why? Do you find yourself doing the same thing? Why do you think certain groups put so much emphasis on outward appearances such as clothes or cars?
8. Norris writes that she was deprived of the story of her father’s shooting not only because of family silence, but “because the collective story of the black World War II veteran had been slighted.” Before reading The Grace of Silence, did you know the history of black veterans during and after World War II? What affect do you think this period had on civil rights in America and what does it mean that it is rarely discussed these days, if at all?
9. Why do you think Belvin Norris never talked about his encounter with Birmingham police with his wife or children? Do you think he would have talked about it if asked? How does his silence compare to Betty Norris’s reluctance to talk about her mother’s Aunt Jemima job?
10. While Norris didn’t know the story of her father’s arrest, her cousin had “heard about it from his father during a cautionary ‘never look a cop in the eye’ conversation that black men often have with their teenage sons.” Black communities refer to DWB (driving while black) as shorthand for police profiling. The recent immigration law in Arizona also singles out a particular group. Do you think such profiling is a problem in America? Do you agree with its use in any situation?
11. Why do you think Belvin Norris returned to Birmingham so often with his family despite his violent encounter? Has your family or anyone in it had to exile themselves from a place? Did you or they return to that place, or avoid it completely?
12. Norris makes the point that white officers in Birmingham in the 1940s and ‘50s earned less than what they would make in the mills or the mines. They had to provide their own flashlights and pistols, and they were led by a man—Bull Conner—who was overtly racist. Does knowing more about the officers’ situation affect how we understand their actions?
13. Julia Beaton says to Norris: “I have no white American friends. I just don’t care for them. I just don’t trust them. I have always told my sons and my grandsons not to bring a woman in this house who does not look like me.” What was your reaction to Beaton’s statements? Do you respond differently to her, as an older black woman, than you do to the older white men and women that Norris also interviews? Should we judge her words less harshly than we might a white person saying “I just don’t trust black people”?
14. Aubrey Justice tells Norris that “In some ways it seems like things were better when the races had their own.” Norris reflects, “I wonder whether Justice might not be speaking the truth, at least in part. You can’t visit my grandparents’ neighborhood in Ensley and avoid asking, Did integration work as planned?” Was Birmingham’s black community better off in some ways during segregation? Is that true for other communities? Who is responsible for the changes that have come to neighborhoods like Ensley?
15. Have you lived in a neighborhood or worked in an environment or attended a school that went through the initial stages of integration? What was your experience as the integrator or member of the majority culture?
16. Davis Shull laments, “Nowadays everything is racist. No matter what you say. You can’t tell the truth without being racist. You can’t say anything.” Political correctness is an enormous focus in American life. Does it leave any room for real conversations about race? What role does such correctness play in stories like Shirley Sherrod’s, and also in situations like Joe Biden describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”? Was Attorney General Eric Holder right when he said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards”? Do you understand what Holder meant when he suggested that “to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul”?
17. There is often the assumption that white people are responsible for the persistence of racism. There is less emphasis, Norris writes, on exploring “the legacy of distrust black parents pass on to their children.” Is there an imbalance in the way we see the legacies of race in America?
18. Take some time to discuss racial stereotypes. What characteristics (lazy, driven, violent, studious, etc.) are attached to certain racial and religious groups: blacks, Jews, Muslims, Asians, Latinos, whites, etc.? Do different groups hold the same images of each other—would a white man see the same stereotypes as a black woman or a Latino teenager? Consider as well the role of race and gender in those stereotypes.
19. Norris asks a powerful question at the end of The Grace of Silence: “What’s been more corrosive to the dialogue on race in America over the last half century or so, things said or unsaid?” Discuss your responses.
20. “All the talk of a postracial American betrays an all too glib eagerness to put in remission a four-hundred-year-old cancerous social disease. We can’t let it rest until we attend to its symptoms in ourselves and others.” Norris’s work demands that we look at our own lives and consider how honest we are with ourselves and how open we are with each other. Are you able to talk about race with friends? Are you honest with yourselves about your own prejudices? What legacies have your families and communities bequeathed to you? What have you passed or want to pass on to your children? Have you ever been accused of being a racist? Why does that label carry such stigma?
21. The question at the heart of Norris’s memoir is “How well do you know the people who raised you?” Carry this question home with you and, as Norris states, “take the bold step and say: Tell me more about yourself.” Stay at the table even if the conversation is difficult, and prepare yourself to listen. “There is grace in silence, and power to be had from listening to that which, more often than not, was left unsaid.”
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