September 22, 2010
By Jordan Foster
Michele Norris, host of NPR’s All Things Considered and author of The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, talks about her Minneapolis upbringing and her family’s Deep South roots.
As a journalist, what was it like doing a project with your family history as the subject?
It was hard, even surreal at times. As a journalist, you don’t use the word “I” very often unless you’re a columnist or you’re writing an essay, but that’s generally not the lane that I swim in, so this was new for me. There were moments when it was exhilarating because I was filling in the blanks in my family’s history. And there were moments where it brought me to my knees. I’m used to telling other people’s stories and I’m used to mining for other people’s histories, but when it’s your own, it’s different.
Do you think this book will change your relationship with your family in the future?
I hope it deepens my relationship with them. When you write a memoir, you take a very tumultuous journey. And when you write a family memoir, you pull a lot of people into the boat who didn’t sign up for that journey, and they wind up riding down the rapids along with you. And there’s something that’s not entirely fair about that. So I tried to make sure that I was very respectful in everything that I did. I know that some family members may not be completely comfortable with the telling of these stories, but they’re our stories, it’s our history.
Why do you think the struggles of black WWII veterans are often skipped over during Black History Month celebrations and in school history lessons?
I think it wasn’t told in part because they didn’t want it told. They kept it to themselves. They didn’t trumpet these stories or pass them on even in the most personal encounters with their family members. It wasn’t in the military’s interest to talk about the marginalization of them during war. The civil rights period of the 1960s had such cinematic appeal and the boomers were such a big part of American culture, so that was the story that was told, repeated, refined, codified, diluted, and placed in history books for easy retelling. Somehow we just skipped over the preamble to the civil rights protests and forgot about all that led to them. It’s clear that the veterans’ protests set the stage for the civil rights victory that came later. They primed the pump of the American conscience. These men fought for democracy and were part of a successful campaign for human rights overseas; they caused Americans who believed in the Allied effort to really start to question the treatment of men and women who were marginalized as part of the war effort and what human rights meant on these shores. It was only because the veterans had fought for the right to vote and had really stood up for their rights that it was possible for the next generation of civil rights leaders—and the young people who marched in the streets—to ultimately secure the civil rights victory.
When you pitched this project, did you always plan on incorporating the events surrounding your father’s shooting as well as details about your maternal grandmother, who appeared at country fairs and small towns to make pancakes while in costume as Aunt Jemima?
The project I pitched was really a story about America’s conversation about race. I had known about the Aunt Jemima story, and I thought it would be a small anecdote. I thought I would include it and my father’s story as a part of America’s larger conversation about race. But while I was working on the other book, I found that I was always canoodling in my own family history. I realized well into the project—I mean, deep into the project—that I was writing the wrong book, that I really needed to go where the story took me. The story was taking me down this lane of exploring what actually happened to my family and trying to understand, to some degree, the conversation of race based on that.