Forum focuses on race diversity
Speaker highlights how to communicate with families about history
When starting a conversation with family members about race and family history, be sure to do it over food.
That’s how you ease reluctant family members into a difficult conversation that could make you realize how little you might know those who raised you, a central theme to NPR host Michele Norris’ new memoir about race, “The Grace of Silence.”
“I was shaped by the weight of my parents’ silence,” Norris said Tuesday during the keynote speech at Colorado State University’s Diversity Symposium.
Norris, who co-hosts “All Things Considered” each weekday, set out after President Barack Obama’s ascendency to the White House to write a book about how people talk about race in their own homes.
Obama’s election, she said, helped spark “historical indigestion” – stories among her family members that just bubbled up because someone who looked like them fulfilled a dream many African-Americans thought impossible by being elected president.
“He looked like a member of my family,” Norris said.
But as she learned more about her family, she said she realized how little she knew of their experiences of racial inequality.
She learned her father was shot by a police officer in Birmingham, Ala., while on his way to a class about the Constitution – the rote knowledge of which was the only way the state would allow him to vote. She learned her grandmother traveled across the country as an “itinerant Aunt Jemima,” hired by a food company to bake pancakes for rural Midwesterners who were reluctant to use pancake mix.
Black people of that generation, she said, never told their stories of hardship, responding not with anger, but with ambition to a country they loved that didn’t love them back.
“They didn’t want to arm their children with their disappointment,” she said.
White people, she said, can be equally reluctant to talk about their attitudes toward race, but it’s important that each of us think and learn about our family history to better understand how our relatives and ancestors confronted racial issues.
Michele Norris is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Grace of Silence.