September 29, 2010
By ELIZABETH FOY LARSEN
When Michele Norris set out to write a book about race, she was surprised to find just how personal that topic really was.
When Michele Norris decided to write a book about race in America, the co-host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” was surprised to learn that her family’s own long-buried stories were as much a part of that history as anything you’d find in a textbook. From her father’s shooting by police in Birmingham, Ala., just weeks after his discharge from service in World War II to her maternal grandmother’s peddling pancake mix across the Upper Midwest in an Aunt Jemima costume, Norris’ book, “The Grace of Silence: A Memoir,” explores not only the complexity of race in America but also how her childhood in Minneapolis contributed to that history.
QIn your introduction, you write that even though the buzz surrounding Obama’s historic election was about a “post-racial America,” your research made you convinced that “we weren’t so much talking about race as talking around it.” Why?
AWhen people talk to each other about race, particularly outside the people in their closest comfort zone, they are often very careful because it’s a subject that is fraught with pain and drama. People are so often worried about saying the wrong thing, about being insensitive or being labeled racists. There are studies that show by the time kids are 8 years old they get a very clear message that race is a risky thing to talk about. So if that’s the lesson they pick up at 8, imagine what they pick up at 38 or 68 or 88, when you are from the generation that lived through the turmoil of segregation and the move toward integration.
QYour family was the first African-American family to move into your neighborhood in south Minneapolis. What do you remember of that experience?
A Growing up, I was shielded from what happened. What I remember was a wonderfully integrated community where we had friends from all across the color line. What I experienced in south Minneapolis was distinctly at odds with what I saw on the television regarding integration. It just seemed so easy when I looked around my neighborhood. I didn’t realize it was anything but easy for my parents. When they first moved in, every family whose property line touched ours moved out.
Q What’s your perspective on that experience now?
A I don’t know how much thought they gave this, but my parents gave us a very hopeful message. They saw a different way of being for themselves and they saw America moving toward a different way of being.
But I knew when we went to Birmingham that there were rules of who went where. What I didn’t understand was that in my father’s youth [in Alabama], you had to plan your trip downtown. You had to take food with you because you might not be able to eat in a restaurant.
Q This is a deeply personal book. Was it hard to write about your parents and your family?
A It was very hard. It’s hard to write about the people who raised you and learn things about them that you didn’t know. It’s hard to recognize that they carry within them deep, deep, deep pain that they shielded me from.
I think the core issue of this book is the question: How well do you know the people who raised you? Families, for all kinds of reasons, choose not to dwell on pain in their past and don’t pass on the full story about those experiences. But at some point you are ready to know the full story and sometimes it’s too late because they are already gone.
Q You have the unique perspective of understanding race in America through the lenses of the Upper Midwest and the Deep South. How do you think those perspectives differ?
A In the South they are more open about talking about race. My father sent me to Birmingham every summer. I think he wanted me to see where he came from. But I think he also wanted me to see another way of being because I grew up in a place where integration was so easy. Maybe he sent me there so that I could have a different set of experiences to draw on later.
Q Aside from the revelations about your family, was there anything about America or American history and their relationship to race that surprised you?
A One of the things I hope people understand when reading this book is that I tried to stretch across the color line. When we talk about race in America, we so often say it pertains to people of color. That’s a skewed view. White America is kind of left on the sidelines, and it’s their history and story, too.
One of the little epiphanies I had was I tried to understand the police officers involved in the shooting. I realized their lives were so similar to my father’s and grandfather’s lives. Their houses looked the same. They tended to be country folks who moved to the city to take advantage of job opportunities. They moved along the same corridors, just on opposite sides of the color line. If the color line were not so high and impenetrable, they might have looked across it and seen something of themselves.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a writer who lives in Minneapolis.