By Allen Pierleoni
Published: Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1D
Michele Norris answered the phone in her home in Washington, D.C., sounding like someone distracted by a household chore.
“My washing machine was doing that jig it does when it’s got a comforter inside it, and I just came down to the basement to reset it, so I didn’t get your first call,” she said. “I’m going to run upstairs to my attic office, so call me back in a minute. I’ll try not to huff and puff.”
Chat with Norris for a while and you detect the faint vestiges of a Minnesota accent whispering beneath that familiar radio voice. She’s a fifth-generation Minnesotan on her mother’s side, but in her younger years “spent weeks in Alabama each summer visiting my grandparents. It was a second home.”
Norris’ plainspokenness and ready laugh belie her stature: She has co-hosted National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” since 2002, was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, has won Peabody and Emmy awards, and has been nominated four times for a Pulitzer Prize.
Last year came her “accidental memoir,” “The Grace of Silence.” Norris had set out to write a book on “America’s hidden conversation about race.” To her surprise, the project turned into a recollection of race-related issues and personal histories within her own family.
“I discovered my family history (largely) because of my aging uncles who were telling it like it was because their filters had gone away,” she said. “I certainly didn’t hear it from my father, who had gone to his grave (in 1988).”
An offshoot of “Grace” is her Race Card Project, for which listeners, readers and fans are asked to “share their thoughts and experiences” on race in a six-word sentence. It has gone global via social networking, and Norris finds herself “swimming in the conversation I started. I went into it thinking race is something no one wants to talk about, but I can’t make that claim anymore.”
To read samples and contribute your own comments, go to www.michele-norris.com.
Norris, 50, and her husband, Broderick Johnson, have two children, 11 and 12. Her stepson is 26.
How did “Grace” come about?
I was asking people to engage in honest conversations about race, so I thought, “Let it begin with me” and I talked about my father (a World War II veteran) being shot and wounded (by a white policeman in Alabama in 1946).
That was one of the things I had learned about in conversations within my own family. Another was that my grandmother had been a traveling Aunt Jemima character, giving pancake-cooking demonstrations at fairs and in small towns.
More of these kinds of stories started to surface from the older people in my family, who suddenly started engaging in “historic indigestion,” like a belch of family history. Tremendous things I had never heard about, and it all just happened by accident. They got inside me and I couldn’t let go.
Every time I talked with my book editor, the thing I was most passionate about was my family’s history. Finally, I said, “I think I’m writing the wrong book.” He said: “I know.”
Was writing “Grace” painful or cathartic?
Both, but the pain came before the catharsis. I wrote it in a year – a very difficult year. I had to enter some sort of fugue state to do it. I didn’t realize how strange I became, how emotionally challenged in ways I wasn’t prepared for.
Every family has its secrets and its silences.
In my family, some of that was generational, some protective. (The elders) didn’t revisit their pasts because it was painful to do so.
There’s an analogy I use to understand my parents’ generation. It was like running track. If you’re in a race, you never look backward. They were so eager to get someplace better, they didn’t dare look over their shoulders because it might slow them down.
What about the “protective” part?
This is true of many households: The older generation doesn’t want to weigh down the younger generation with their tales of woe. They want the kids to have a clean path forward.
Our parents did a good job of protecting us, especially me, because I’m the youngest (of three sisters) by 10 years. Looking back, I see that my father had conflicted emotions he was trying to shield us from. He carried some anger and disappointment that he made sure we never saw.
I’m not saying my family was special, but for members of a generation that lived through the cudgel of Jim Crow, to practice that kind of silence was particularly graceful.
How did writing the book change you?
I grew up thinking our family was ordinary to the point of being dull. Later I realized that my family’s older members were a part of some really important chapters of American history, so (researching the book) changed the way I think about history. To the point that I’ve become almost evangelical in talking to people about capturing their own family histories.
Growing up, you were taught not to be distracted by racial prejudice. Was that the best course?
It would be hard to argue otherwise, because life turned out pretty good for most of us. Our parents told us not to let any assumption based on race slow us down, but at the same time to make sure we upheld the family name and were good models for our race. Don’t call attention to yourselves, but make sure you shine.
What’s the family history policy in your own home?
Our parents didn’t talk about (family history) because they didn’t want to weigh us down by putting boulders in our pockets. We try to put pearls of wisdom in our children’s pockets because we want them to be grounded and understand their history. Not so much that it prevents them from soaring, but enough that they understand who they are.
Where do race relations stand in America today?
It would be hard to say they have not improved, but they have also become more complex.
For a long time, race in America was a binary discussion. The color line was something that cleaved white America from black America. Now immigration patterns are different and people who migrate here tend to be of darker hue, which changes things. The New York Times reported today that one in seven marriages involves people marrying someone outside their race, another element in the stew.
Do you have a message for families?
Yes, especially for those in Sacramento, which is wonderfully diverse. I hope people become curious about the people who might not look like them. What’s life like behind the curtains in that household?
Most importantly, I hope they become curious about their own family’s histories. The people who raised us lived in interesting times. They saw a lot, but they say a little. You have to go out and find what they know. Ask questions, be curious, record the voices. Learn something.
Michele Norris is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Grace of Silence.