By Remy Tumin
Writing book made Ms. Norris appreciate family.
Michele Norris is taking back pancakes. She’s putting down the boxed mix, stepping away from the cupboard and taking on the task of making homemade pancakes with her children. She understands the convenience factor, the ease of adding milk, water or orange juice to the powder to create pancakes in minutes, and was a frequent buyer for one of her son’s favorite foods. But when Ms. Norris found out that her grandmother was a traveling Aunt Jemima, representing the slave cook stereotype that was advertised, the act of buying pancake mix suddenly became complicated.
“It’s not as though I’m rejecting Aunt Jemima and my grandmother’s history, but that I decided that I wanted to take that back, so they honor her but at the same time they understand,” she said during a recent morning interview in the garden at Espresso Love in Edgartown. “It just became really hard for me to just buy the box. It’s not that I’ll never buy the box again . . . There’s a time for the box, I totally get it. I decided to go back to the basics, and they’re really good. Homemade pancakes are fantastic.”
Ms. Norris of course has national voice recognition — she is cohost of NPR’s All Things Considered and the first African American to host the show. Last week found her on a two-week Vineyard holiday with her family.
Making pancakes together is just one activity Ms. Norris and her family like to do together when visiting the Vineyard for their annual summer vacation. They have been coming to the Island for 20 years, enjoying beach days at Long Point, swims at Seth’s Pond and biking. She wrote part of her new memoir, The Grace of Silence, on the Island. What began as eavesdropping on conversations about race after the election of President Obama became a journey of uncovering hidden family stories. The book comes out Sept. 21, published by Random House.
Her mother in high school.
“The kids became a part of the story in helping me pull stories out of elders. I found that my mother would talk to the kids in a very open way, and their natural curiosity would pull stories out of her,” Ms. Norris said. “In the course of working on this I think she began to see the importance of history, I think she started to think more about her history and making sure that it was passed down and in some way, she became a caretaker and the kids became a part of that.”
Ms. Norris, who grew up in Minnesota, describes her mother, Betty Norris, as strong in body and emotion, a woman who carries an inner strength that the entire family draws upon. But when she decided to set out on a journey that would lead her to learn the truth about her parents’ divorce, her grandmother’s dressing up as a slave to promote a pancake mix, and the abuse her father received upon returning from World War II, her mother wasn’t all too convinced.
“When I first found out [about my grandmother] she said, literally, ‘Talk about this when I’m gone,’ ” Ms. Norris said. “I knew I had to talk about it . . . and I could only really move through that terrain fully and with gusto once she in essence gave me permission to do that, and it took a bit of time, it didn’t happen initially, and I’m so happy that she did and we know a lot more now.”
Father, Belvin Norris.
What they learned together was that Ms. Norris’s grandmother served more as an ambassador than a walking derogatory advertisement. “She was helping people see a woman of color when they really didn’t see women of color except in advertising or in denigrating ways,” she explained. “She made sure when people saw her they left with an image that was positive, and well gosh, maybe the woman that I met doesn’t match with the, it’s hard to say this but it’s true, the buffoonery in the ads for Aunt Jemima. The woman I saw was elegant and well spoken and intelligent and kind and graceful.”
Ms. Norris’s children know a little about the Aunt Jemima connection, but one of the more difficult stories Ms. Norris has yet to figure out is that of her father being shot in the leg by a white policeman in Birmingham when he returned from the Navy after World War II. When Ms. Norris learned from her uncle a few years ago over breakfast of the altercation in the winter of 1946, it led her back to where she spent her summers as a youth — Alabama — getting closer and closer to the truth.
“My parents chose not to tell me, and I have to tell [my children]. I have to figure out how I tell them that and how I tell them in a way that they’re not angry or confused,” Ms. Norris said. “The reasons that my parents didn’t tell me is that they didn’t want me to have complex emotions, they didn’t want me to have a reason to be angry, they wanted me to soar, they wanted me to fly and in order to do that they didn’t want to weigh me down with their own frustrations.”
Ms. Norris’s father died in 1988, more than 20 years before the stories of her family’s past began to unravel. But his untold story has continued to shape her own and forced her to pose the central question in her memoir: how well do we really know our parents?
“This is a very young country and we’ve come quite a distance in a very short period of time. I thought I understood that, and I really understand it now,” Ms. Norris said. “[Going through her family past] helped me understand this country in a better way, and helped me appreciate this country in a better way. And I’m not saying that I didn’t work through a bit of anger; this hurt. This was very, very difficult reporting and I hope when people look back at this they understand not just all of the horrible things that happened to people, that America moved past that.”
She continued: “And one of the reasons we moved past that was the decision, bit by bit, individual by individual that we could reach past anger. The men of my father’s generation, so many of them instead of moving forward in anger decided to move forward with hope, they believed in something better, they believed in themselves, they didn’t accept the place that society had dictated for them and they led these lives of utter rectitude to show America what they could be and to show America what it could be.”
These were the conversations Ms. Norris originally set out to analyze in an anthropological way, questioning herself and the way she thought about race. “This whole idea of a post-racial society has always seemed curious to me, I’ve said this before, why would we even want that?” she said. “Post-racial suggests that you remove all of the color from the palette and then everything is rendered in shades of gray. What’s the point of that? I don’t even understand that.”
She continued: “What I’m interested in as a journalist and as a writer is the conversations around the margins; those conversations are outside of earshot for the most part. We don’t pay enough attention to what’s happening there.”
Ms. Norris is about to set out on a 30-city book tour to continue the conversation in what she prefers to call a listening tour, but the hardest part still remains — how will she pass on these stories with grace?
“That’s hard, it’s not easy because it’s a difficult history,” she said. “I want to make sure that they take the right lessons from the history, not that America was an awful place, that America went through an awful time.”
Ms. Norris was off to the Farm Institute to buy vegetables from her son Norris who was working the farm stand that day. They would probably all cook dinner together that night; kale is a favorite in their household.
“What the book did to me was make me so appreciate my family and appreciate the blessings I have in my family, the wonderful people who raised me and the gift of memories that you give the next generation,” Ms. Norris said. “What they’ll remember most is cooking meals at the end of the day with Grandma, sitting on her bed, all climbing in her big king bed and reading books and telling stories. Those are really important memories.”