The Grace of Silence: A Memoir
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In the wake of talk of a “postracial” America upon Barack Obama’s ascension as president of the United States, Michele Norris, cohost of National Public Radio’s flagship program All Things Considered, set out to write, through original reporting, a book about “the hidden conversation” on race that is unfolding nationwide. She would, she thought, base her book on the frank disclosures of others on the subject, but she was soon disabused of her presumption when forced to confront the fact that “the conversation” in her own family had not been forthright.
Norris unearthed painful family secrets that compelled her to question her own self-understanding: from her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer weeks after his discharge from the navy at the conclusion of World War II to her maternal grandmother’s peddling pancake mix as an itinerant Aunt Jemima to white farm women in the Midwest. In what became a profoundly personal and bracing journey into her family’s past, Norris traveled from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South to explore the reasons for the “things left unsaid” by her father and mother when she was growing up, the better to come to terms with her own identity. Along the way she discovered how her character was forged by both revelation and silence.
Extraordinary for Norris’s candor in examining her own racial legacy and what it means to be an American, The Grace of Silence is also informed by rigorous research in its evocation of time and place, scores of interviews with ordinary folk, and wise observations about evolving attitudes, at once encouraging and disturbing, toward race in America today. For its particularity and universality, it is powerfully moving, a tour de force.
hunter who always had two or three hound dogs. My grandparents’ wood-frame bungalow sat on raised cinder blocks; the hounds slept under the house. They ate about as well as people, and they tore up the yard with little or no consequence. I don’t remember many bushes or flowers in the front yard, but the few plants in the backyard produced food for the table: beans, tomatoes, peppers, collards, polk salad, peaches, and figs. So it is hard for me to imagine when or how my father became fluent in
Chicago, and whenever I blow through town, I swing by to see my uncle on the Far South Side, in Pill Hill, so named because many black doctors once lived there. On this particular trip, though, my schedule was tight, and so that Thursday morning Joe drove to meet me downtown at the West Egg Cafe, an all-day breakfast spot near the Lake Michigan waterfront that’s popular with yuppies. He had ordered his oatmeal and I some Tex-Mex egg concoction, even as Joe made a point of reminding me that for
the failure of her marriage to Belvin. She didn’t know anything about it, and saw no reason to bother herself with knowing more. “You believe what you need to believe about your parents,” she told me. “It’s what we all do, and that belief has served you well in your life, so please don’t go looking for old ghosts.” I wondered if Mom, too, had had her own epiphanies and how she had coped with the fact that Dad had walled off a part of his life. How could she not have known? How could she have
saying no when asked to get up and move out of the whites-only section of a city bus. But long before Rosa Parks and her legendary act of defiance, other black women also shook their heads and said no, standing up against segregated public transportation. Claudette Colvin. Susie McDonald. Aurelia Browder. Mary Louise Smith. Maybe their families know the role they played. Maybe not. And if they did, maybe they stopped talking about it, so painful was it to recall a relative being unjustly and
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