Mrs. Norris, My name is Rodney Knolton and I’m 61 years old. I recently checked out your book, The Grace of Silence, from my local library and when I read chapter three about Aunt Jemima, I knew I had a story to share with you. When I was a young child, my mom and dad moved to Chicago from Memphis to find work. I was in the second grade then and during that first year, my elementary school had a Pancake Day (I don’t remember, but I imagine it was to raise money for the school) with Aunt Jemima was the host of the event. I don’t remember that much about the event and what took place that day but being in the presence of Aunt Jemima still is quite vivid. And I do remember that the lady who was presented as Aunt Jemima left me with a lasting impression of a kind, grandmotherly type of lady who only wanted to feed the kids and make us happy I can still envision her warm smile as she visited each table.
Being raised in Memphis as a white child in the 50′s; I had little exposure to black family life. But during those early years, racism had not yet tainted my innocence. I know this, because when my parents decided to return to Memphis (two years after first arriving in Chicago) my mom and dad placed all three of the children on a train to go live with our grandmother while they prepared the physical move of our belongs by road. When my mom put us on the train, she asked a black lady with children of her own, if she’d keep an eye on us. The lady’s oldest son had the same first name as I did and we became instant friends. Being the oldest of the siblings, I passed on to my brother and sister, the trusting comfort I had in this lady who had just moments before been a stranger to all of us. As we, her children and the three of us, ran around on the train playing, she watched over us with a mother’s eye.
Today, it would seem heartless and down right dangerous to place a child in the care of a total stranger, but even my mother felt comfortable enough with this lady to trust her children to her care. I know this small occurence doesn’t right the wrongs that, unfortunately, continue to take place against people of color, but I think it set in motion for me personally, an ever increasing attitude toward all people that changed my life in a quiet, yet dramatic way. I’d like to relay another bit of childhood innocence that I observed when my niece’s daughter invited me to her Grandparents Day breakfast at her school just two years ago. Jace was in the first grade and i sat across from her and her friends/classmates at the long lunchroom tables in the school cafeteria. As always, I brought my camera and snapped photos of her and her friends. Later when I was putting the photos on my computer, I was asking her the names of her friends to include. To make sure I got the correct names with the right kids, I asked her the name of the white girl and the black girl. In a very sweet and informative manner, Jace told me, “no Bob, she’s not black, she’s brown.” I, as an adult, was referencing race and she, as an innocent child, only thought of it as a color. I much prefer her observance. Just now, as I wrote this, it brought tears to my eyes. innocence lost is tragic, but innocence witnessed and appreciated is like eating a Dreamsicle on a hot summer day.
Thank you for reading and thank you for writing! I’ve been a fan of yours for years as I love All Things Considered. Respectfully, Rodney
Michele Norris is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Grace of Silence.