An NPR reporter offers up family secrets as a testimony to racism’s power and reach.
by Sandy Banks
I wish NPR reporter Michele Norris hadn’t called “The Grace of Silence,” her tribute to her parents, a “memoir.” The book is, at once, much less and much more.
Gracefully written and carefully researched, it offers up long-buried family secrets as a testimony to racism’s power and reach: Her stylish and cultured grandmother spent years as a traveling Aunt Jemima. Her soft-spoken, mild-mannered dad was shot and arrested as a young man in a row with a Birmingham, Ala., police officer.
But there are gaps in Norris’ history that cannot be filled. Her father has been dead for more than 20 years, and Norris is too respectful to push her headstrong mother for the explanations and details she needs. Her own honesty is the book’s saving grace, as she puzzles through the tangled landscape of race: “Here is the conundrum of racism,” she declares. “You know it’s there, but you can’t prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation.”
Norris is familiar to NPR listeners for her soothing voice and smooth rapport on “All Things Considered.” A former writer for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, Norris displays strong reporting skills and an eye for detail as she renders perfectly a familiar slice of middle-class Midwestern life for black families in the 1960s, when every household had a Bible, a World Book Encyclopedia and two parents constantly admonishing us to dress well, speak properly, act right.
Norris’ parents were the first blacks on their block in Minneapolis. Her father was a Navy vet, raised in Birmingham before civil rights arrived, so determined not to be looked down upon that he woke early on snowy days to shovel the driveway and sidewalk before his white neighbors looked outside. Her mother was a fourth-generation Minnesotan who hailed from the only black family in a small northern town; a woman with too much pride to talk about her own mother’s stint as a stereotype or explain her sudden divorce to her now-grown child.
Norris renders them in telling and affectionate detail: the father who carried a copy of the Constitution in his back pocket to read on the bus while commuting to work at the post office; the mother who ordered a barber to lop off her teenage daughter’s long braid, leaving Norris with a “kinky little Afro” that made her the object of schoolyard hazing.
Her struggle to understand her parents, absent judgment, reflects a universal longing that often comes too late, as we try to recapture and reframe our memories, to give context to our upbringing. She painstakingly tracks down police records, pores over military documents and interviews her father’s contemporaries to find the truth in family lore. Her father, Belvin Norris Jr., had been wounded in an altercation with police in 1946, just after he’d returned from military duty. The police docket recalled his arrest for “drunkenness, robbery and resisting arrest.” Her investigation tells a more complicated story.
Her father’s military experience in segregated ranks during World War II was shared by black men around the country who enlisted to become “fighting men” and wound up wielding spatulas. “As they would come to learn,” she wrote, “their service only confirmed their status as second-class Americans.”
Norris has a reporter’s instinct for knowing when to get out of the way and let people talk — whether it’s the retired white policeman wistfully touting the benefits of segregation or the elderly black woman angrily unpacking ugly memories of Birmingham. She paints a painfully intimate portrait of that city and that era, making clear the toll that official segregation took on “aspirational Negroes,” like my own parents.
I found myself suddenly recalling a long-buried moment: my mother crying when then- Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot, not because he died, but because he didn’t. It stunned me then that she could be so callous. But she grew up in the same Alabama that shaped Norris’ father. And like him, she passed on too young. I found answers in Norris’ book to questions that I can’t ask her. “The Grace of Silence’s” meticulous re-creation of the historical record has much to offer to today’s national conversation on race.
But its flaw is that Norris is unable to confidently ascribe meaning to much of what she discovers. There is too much imagining for a memoir; too many “In my mind’s eye… I suppose… I suspect… I wonder… I yearn to know.”
Norris satisfies her yearning with this lesson: “I’ve come to understand how a man can break from character when he concludes that his dignity and self-worth are more important to him than anything else in life.” But that conclusion is not enough. “We need to be fearless while unburdening ourselves,” she writes, “even as we respect the same effort in others.”
Norris accepts that her parents kept their stories to themselves to spare her from rancor growing up. But she also comes to understand that innocence carries its own burdens; that the cost of secrecy outweighs the gift of silence.