The Grace of Silence, by Michele Norris, Sept. 21, Pantheon
A falsehood, said the poet Sa’di, is like the cut of a saber; the wound may heal, but it leaves a scar. The lie of racism—that certain groups of people are inferior to others—has left countless scars, and Michele Norris, who hosts NPR’s “All Things Considered,” sets out to examine some of them in this disjointed, essayistic memoir.
Every family has its painful, taboo topics, and Norris, who grew up in Minneapolis, focuses on two secrets scrupulously kept by her parents, both postal workers. First, she reveals that her maternal grandmother once worked as a traveling “Aunt Jemima,” serving pancakes to white housewives on the prairie. Her mother kept this fact from Norris, who found out about it almost by accident. Learning that her grandmother dressed up as a fictional “Mammy” character to sell pancake mix is easy compared to the discovery that her beloved, upstanding father, soon after returning from Naval service in World War II, had been shot by a white cop in Birmingham, Alabama. No one ever mentioned it afterward; even her mother didn’t know it had happened.
Norris presents fascinating detail about the development of the Aunt Jemima character as a marketing tool, and about the systematic crackdown on returning black veterans by people like Bull Connor, police commissioner of Birmingham, who would later earn international infamy by turning water cannons on civil rights demonstrators.
How did Norris’s parents deal with such insults and injuries? Like many others, they did their best to bury the bitter memories and get on with life. As a result, they paid a cost that can only be guessed, but Norris believes there was more in their silence than pain, rage, and pride. There was a measure of grace in it, too: “How can you soar if you’re freighted down by the anger of your ancestors?” In the end, she recommends a different kind of silence, urging readers to listen attentively to the stories of their loved ones.
As a result of the civil rights movement, many black Americans reached previously unattainable heights. Many others, however, were plunged into deeper poverty. Segregation along racial lines has too often been exchanged for another, “de facto segregation based on class,” in Norris’s words. In a telling moment, she returns to the Birmingham neighborhood where her father was raised, and where, as a girl, she enjoyed summertime stays with grandparents. Today, the old place is almost unrecognizable, scarred and disfigured by violence and neglect. As she leans against her car on a blasted street, a youth riding past on a bicycle warns her about the local violence, saying, “Best you get yourself back to where you came from.” One way or another, racism makes exiles of us all.