Books
3:31 pm
Mon September 20, 2010

The Grace of Silence: A Memoir by Michele Norris

The name Michele Norris will of course be familiar to NPR listeners. Often teamed with Steve Inskeep, Norris is a well-known NPR reporter. Usually these radio personalities are just voices to us, without even faces to go with them, never mind life stories, but Norris has written what is, more or less, a memoir.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

The name Michele Norris will of course be familiar to NPR listeners. Often teamed with Steve Inskeep, Norris is a well-known NPR reporter. Usually these radio personalities are just voices to us, without even faces to go with them, never mind life stories, but Norris has written what is, more or less, a memoir.

Norris, an African-American, tell us in her Introduction that the inspiration for her volume was a trio of extended discussions for NPR with people of all races in York, Pennsylvania, on the subject of race. This is the subject we Americans, especially white Americans, are so reluctant to talk about, the subject we wish would go away. Not even the election of an African-American to the presidency, however, can make the issue disappear. We are not in a post-racial, color-blind America, at least not yet.

What is more startling to the reader, as it was to Norris herself, is that in the black community, in the black family, her family, there is plenty left unspoken.

Early in the narrative, Norris, a fifth-generation Minnesotan, tells us that her grandmother Iona Brown had worked as a travelling representative for Quaker Oats as, of all things, an Aunt Jemima, moving from town to town, to county fairs, women's clubs and so on, dressed like the cook on the pancake mix box, cooking, selling, and promoting the product. And quite successfully it seems.

Nobody talked about it. It was a job, honest work, but, of course, humiliating, demeaning, stereotyped. Norris learned of her grandmother's job only recently, and spends considerable time discussing black stereotypes, advertising images and the issues of race and pride in general.

Norris also recently learned, after his death, that her father, Belvin Norris, as a young man in Birmingham had been shot by a white policeman.

Again, why was she never told? This is the heart of the book, and explains the title, The Grace of Silence. Michele Norris, like many another middle class African-American, was raised to "keep her eyes on the prize." Her family did not want her "eyes clouded by tears" or to have her "weighted down by anger." Her parents and grandparents kept those grievances inside, at considerable emotional expense, one is sure, so that the minds of the next generation would not be "poisoned" by anger and hate. Was it the right choice? Norris debates it to the end of the volume.

Norris interviewed family members and neighbors to get the story of her father. It is still not clear what happened, although Mr. Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library was enormously helpful in locating the police records.

In the Pythian Temple Building, in downtown Birmingham, Belvin Norris, his brother Woody and friend John got into a scuffle with a white policeman while getting onto an elevator. With no apparent provocation, the policeman shot Belvin Norris in the leg.

The three men were bailed out as quickly as possible; the Birmingham jail could be a mortally dangerous place for blacks. Fines and bribes were paid and Belvin and his brother left town and moved to Chicago quite soon.

It was a particular irony that Belvin Norris, like thousands of others, was a returning vet. He had served in a segregated Navy and returned to a segregated homeland. Norris discusses at some length the subject of returning black veterans, a subject which deserves a book of its own, but is not exactly her life story.

Norris herself spent parts of most childhood summers in Birmingham with her dad's family, but they never spoke of the shooting incident. Lest we conclude that St. Paul was a paradise, however, she includes the story of how her father and mother bought a house in 1961 on Oakland Avenue and "within a week ?the white families whose property line touched ours soon put their homes up for sale. Three who owned houses across from my parents' also decided to decamp."

Both Norris's parents worked for the postal service. They shoveled the snow off the sidewalk, mowed their lawn and washed their cars. They were the ideal neighbors. None of that was the point.

This is a book well worth reading. It might better be sold as essays or explorations into issues of race in America, though, because we learn in fact very little about Michelle Norris and her life after the age of 16?her college years, marriage, family, and her journalistic career?and that's a shame, as I'm sure there's a good story there. Maybe next time.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on September 20, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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