Authors: Michele Norris
Copyright © 2010 by Michele Norris
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Birmingham Public Library for permission to reprint an August 6, 1942, letter from Eugene “Bull” Connor to Franklin Roosevelt (Birmingham, Alabama Law Department Legal Files, Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives). Reprinted by permission of the Birmingham Public Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The grace of silence / Michele Norris.
1. Norris, Michele. 2. Norris, Michele—Family. 3. African American journalists—Biography. 4. African American women—Biography. 5. United States—Race relations.
PN4874.N64A3 2010 070.92—dc22
For my parents, Belvin & Betty,
You gave me wings
It is a unique art and special skill, this business of being a Negro in America.
WILLIAM H. HASTIE
Lawyer, Judge, Civil Rights Advocate,
Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War
I BEGAN THIS PROJECT
in 2009 because I became convinced that an unprecedented, hidden, and robust conversation about race was taking place across the country in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign and his ascension to office. Americans seemed to be spending more time talking about race, but even so, I had the feeling that something was always left unsaid. Filters would automatically engage, preventing us from saying things that might cause us embarrassment or get us into trouble or, even worse, reveal us for who we really are. We weren’t so much talking about race as talking around it.
In my work at National Public Radio, I tried to dig deep into race in America in a multipart NPR series of no-holds-barred conversations with a diverse group of voters in York, Pennsylvania. Over the course of three visits we spent more than fifteen hours with fifteen Americans: whites, blacks, Latinos, and South Asians. We were surprised by their enthusiasm for the project. We eased the conversation with good meals. (Amazing how carbohydrates can lubricate a conversation.) And we asked simple and direct questions. What are the occasions, if any, when you become aware of your race? Do white Americans underestimate discrimination? Do black people make too much of it? How would the country be different if led by a black man?
There was candor, discomfort, and a certain amount of conflict among those gathered in the room. They rolled their eyes and crossed their arms and conveyed their unease in myriad ways. They did so many of the things that people do before unease turns to exasperation and the possibility of conversation vanishes. But they didn’t back down, even when things got dicey. All stayed and listened, even as each revealed fears, biases, hopes, and insecurities—all those things so often left unsaid when people try to talk about race. In the end, we were confident we had pushed past a barrier to frankness and had probed the consequence of silence on matters of race.
What happened in York is by no means unique. It is happening right now in beauty parlors and truck stops, in college dormitories and courthouses, in office parks, at construction sites, and at dinner tables, where parents are often confronted by children with more tolerant views on race. The conversation is flowing through bodegas and along interstate highways and rural roads. It is filling computer screens and creeping into country clubs.
Yet for the most part, it remains segregated. Blacks and other people of color often seem to talk about race more openly, while many whites appear to yearn for a postracial world where such discussions are unnecessary. People may be talking about race more, but they’re not necessarily talking to one another. My intention was to eavesdrop on their conversations and write a book that might enrich our collective dialogue on the thorny subject.
Well, the truth can set you free, but it can also be profoundly disconcerting. I realized that pretty quickly when I began listening carefully to conversations in my own family. I had hoped that other people would speak candidly about race for my book, but I soon came to understand that my reporting had to begin with me. The discussion about race within my own family was not completely honest.
My racial identity has largely been forged by the sum of experiences in my lifetime, and my most formative memories flow through my parents’ lives—from their struggles and tribulations, their triumphs and celebrations, their dignity found through a hard day’s work, the devotion of our worship, the places we lived, and, above all, the constant expectation captured by one word:
. Rise and shine. Rise to the occasion. Rise above it all. No matter what, move forward, never backward, always onward and upward. And if you ever feel like you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on until you can start climbing again.
For all of our lives, we were told, “Keep your eye on the prize.” Stay strong. Keep committed. Focus on the fight for justice and equality. Set your sights on excellence and opportunity. Don’t let up. Don’t look back. Don’t slow down. Ignore the slights and the slurs—and the laws—that try to keep you from achieving your goals. Always keep the prize in mind. See it. Smell it. Feel it. Our parents armed us with what they thought we needed: strength, courage, and a touch of indignation. But just a touch.
I was shaped by the advice and admonitions that rained down on me. I’ve always known that. What I did not know until I began this project is that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents’ silence. I originally wanted to write about how “other people” talked about race, but that presumption was swiftly disabused when I learned about secrets in my own family that had purposely been kept from me.
Among those secrets was this: as a young man, my father had been shot by a white policeman. He never spoke about the incident after leaving Alabama and moving north. He never told even my mother. He took the story to his grave. But she, too, was hiding something. My mother never talked about the time her mother spent working as a traveling Aunt Jemima, swooping through small midwestern towns in a hoop skirt and head scarf to perform pancake-making demonstrations for farm women. The memory had caused her shame, so she’d locked it away. These revelations suggest to me that in certain ways I’ve never had a full understanding of my parents or of the formation of my own racial identity.
How many of us know the whole truth about our families? For most of my adult life, I thought I did, but my confidence has been shaken. One of the unforeseen consequences of the rise of Barack Obama has been a grudging willingness to shed painful memories. The rise of a black man to the nation’s highest office has lowered the barrier for painful conversations among Americans of all colors, especially those who lived through the trials and tumult of forced segregation.
Every household is different; in my childhood home, the window to that painful past was never widely opened. Instead, stories were meted out judiciously, in morsels and tidbits. Occasionally, there would be a tale of a hardscrabble life or some unguarded talk. A visiting relative—fueled by that third glass of Pink Champale—would steer the conversation toward a place called melancholy and then a bit yonder, to the rough intersection where disappointment meets rage. But it would never last long. The story would always come to an abrupt end. My mother would shoot one of her “don’t go there” looks, and the discussion would snap back to the here and now. Even so, something in that relative’s face—a sudden gloss in the eyes, a catch in the throat—suggested a mind still wandering through some distant, aching memory.
Our parents felt we needed to know only so much. No time for tears. No yearning for sympathy. You see, you can’t keep your eye on the prize if your sight is clouded by tears. How can you soar if you’re freighted down by the anger of your ancestors?
MY FATHER WAS ONE OF
those people who are most comfortable at the fringes, away from the action center stage. He did not need or crave attention. Instead, he was driven by the need to reassure others that everything was going to be all right. Belvin Norris Jr. was a fixer. An eternal optimist to the core. You could see it in his smile. As a grown man he still grinned like a schoolboy, and you could not help but grin along with him. His vibe was contagious. Kindness is usually seen as altruistic. But it can also be an act of desperation, satisfying a deep-seated need to avoid the mind’s darker places. Benevolence, for some, is a survival tactic.
Even in his last hours my father practiced benevolence, always looking out for everybody else. Moments after the doctor delivered devastating news about his health, my father, still smiling, pointed to an infected cut on my left hand. It was his way of prodding the emergency room physician to turn his attention to me. The victim opting to be the benefactor.
Dad took ill in June 1988, while visiting his brother Simpson in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The minute he called me I knew something awful had happened. His voice was graveled, his words rubbery. He couldn’t put a sentence together, and the failed effort only added to his frustration. He had lost control of his speech, but he managed to hold on to his sunny disposition. Although his words were incomprehensible, I sensed a false cheer, with each attempt at speech ending on an elevated
note—the kind of verbal leap parents of very young children use to mask irritation or fear.
I was working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago at the time. Dad had stopped by to visit me on his way to Uncle Simpson’s house. We had spent a few days going to baseball games and trying to get my kitchen in order. He was relieved to see that I’d finally learned to enjoy spending time at the stove. I showed off for him with jambalaya and pineapple upside-down cake. It worked. He set small talk aside, went back for seconds, and still had room for a huge piece of cake. When he was finished he dabbed his mouth and said, “Maybe now you’ll find someone who will put up with you.”
To another person, this might have sounded like a dig, but I knew what he meant. I could use my kitchen skills to cook at home and save money and to help “close the deal” when I found the right man. I was twenty-six and living on my own in Chicago. No husband. No roommate. Just me in a second-story duplex apartment with high ceilings, a large kitchen, and actual furniture. For years my father had visited me at various apartments where the most comfortable chair had been either a wooden crate or something recovered from the curb on trash day. He never let me forget an embarrassing episode when I was living in southern California. A neighbor stopped by my Manhattan Beach apartment to borrow a coffee filter one Saturday morning. She couldn’t stop staring at the wingback armchair in which my father sat reading the
Los Angeles Times
. “You know, Michele,” she said, “that looks like the chair I threw out for bulk trash pickup a few weeks ago.”
My neighbor left with her borrowed coffee filter and a piece of my dignity. Lucky for me, my father had a sense of humor and a strong commitment to thrift. He always believed that the prettiest car on the road was the one that was paid in full, and in his book the most attractive chair in my cramped living room that day was the one that had arrived without a price tag. We
had a good laugh, and when he left, he snuck an envelope into my jewelry box with “sofa fund” written on the outside.