The Grace of Silence: A Memoir
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In the wake of talk of a “postracial” America upon Barack Obama’s ascension as president of the United States, Michele Norris, cohost of National Public Radio’s flagship program All Things Considered, set out to write, through original reporting, a book about “the hidden conversation” on race that is unfolding nationwide. She would, she thought, base her book on the frank disclosures of others on the subject, but she was soon disabused of her presumption when forced to confront the fact that “the conversation” in her own family had not been forthright.
Norris unearthed painful family secrets that compelled her to question her own self-understanding: from her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer weeks after his discharge from the navy at the conclusion of World War II to her maternal grandmother’s peddling pancake mix as an itinerant Aunt Jemima to white farm women in the Midwest. In what became a profoundly personal and bracing journey into her family’s past, Norris traveled from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South to explore the reasons for the “things left unsaid” by her father and mother when she was growing up, the better to come to terms with her own identity. Along the way she discovered how her character was forged by both revelation and silence.
Extraordinary for Norris’s candor in examining her own racial legacy and what it means to be an American, The Grace of Silence is also informed by rigorous research in its evocation of time and place, scores of interviews with ordinary folk, and wise observations about evolving attitudes, at once encouraging and disturbing, toward race in America today. For its particularity and universality, it is powerfully moving, a tour de force.
how to fix that broken faucet so the eight people in this house can get washed in time for church.” Silence, then: “I may not know much, but I know one thing. There are no dumb folks in my household.” Grandpa Belvin repeated this so often that, if the little Birmingham bungalow had housed a business, the sign out front most likely would have read, GREAT FOOD. GOOD PEOPLE. NO DUMMIES. As I grew older I began to understand my dad’s joke about the seven dwarfs. Dopey aside, the personalities of
his students to works by Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Ernest Gaines, Chester Himes, and even Chinua Achebe and Mark Mathabane. When he knew he had won their trust, he made them read Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho, the better to understand an important life lesson: that a man is truly tough only when he can show his soft side. He turned criminals into readers, and in exchange he asked for only one thing: that they continue to read upon release from
John Beaton, a twenty-one-year-old black male from 904 Avenue G, two doors down from the Norris house. He was signed in at 9:40 p.m., ten minutes before Woodrow. The Beaton and Norris families were close, and John had attended Parker High with Woody and Belvin. The docket showed that John Beaton had also been charged with robbery, the word “drunk” also added to his record after he was booked. That was all. Beaton was not charged with resisting arrest. John Beaton gave me another path to pursue.
Woody had been arrested. When I first started asking questions about the shooting and arrest, I discovered that my mother had learned about the incident—much as I did and at around the same time—to her great surprise, from a cousin who had blabbed about it at a family funeral. While the revelation had made me want to scream with frustration, my mother initially dismissed the story as “crazy talk.” She shrugged her shoulders, no doubt adding the tale to her catalog of possible explanations for
Dimension or Ali McGraw or, for that matter, any of the long, straight-haired models who stared back at me from magazine covers. Now many of my style icons at the time wore Afros. I adored Get Christie Love. I was crazy about the Jackson 5. I pined for Michael Jackson, but I didn’t want to look like him. Mom tried to convince me that “the look” was right for me. She talked of how easy it would be to care for. As summer was just a few weeks away, she said, “Imagine being able to swim as much as