I wish NPR reporter Michele Norris hadn't called The Grace of Silence, her tribute to her parents, a "memoir." The book is, at once, much less and much more.
Gracefully written and carefully researched, it offers up long-buried family secrets as a testimony to racism's power and reach: Her stylish and cultured grandmother spent years as a traveling Aunt Jemima. Her soft-spoken, mild-mannered dad was shot and arrested as a young man in a row with a Birmingham, Ala., police officer.
But there are gaps in Norris' history that cannot be filled. Her father has been dead for more than 20 years, and Norris is too respectful to push her headstrong mother for the explanations and details she needs. Her own honesty is the book's saving grace: "Here is the conundrum of racism," she declares. "You know it's there, but you can't prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation."
Norris is familiar to NPR listeners for her soothing voice and smooth rapport on All Things Considered. A former writer for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, Norris displays strong reporting skills and an eye for detail as she renders a familiar slice of middle-class Midwestern life for black families in the 1960s, when every household had a Bible, an encyclopedia and two parents admonishing kids to dress well, speak properly, act right.
Norris' parents were the first blacks on their block in Minneapolis. Her father was a Navy vet, raised in Birmingham before civil rights arrived, so determined not to be looked down upon that he woke early on snowy days to shovel the driveway and sidewalk before his white neighbors looked outside. Her mother was a fourth-generation Minnesotan from the only black family in a small Northern town, a woman with too much pride to talk about her own mother's stint as a stereotype.
Norris' struggle to understand her parents reflects a universal longing that often comes too late, as we try to recapture and reframe our memories, to give context to our upbringing.
Her father, Belvin Norris Jr., had been wounded in an altercation with police in 1946, just after he had returned from military duty. The police docket recalled his arrest for "drunkenness, robbery and resisting arrest."
Her investigation tells a more complicated story. Her father's military experience in segregated ranks during World War II was shared by black men across the country who enlisted to become fighting men and wound up wielding spatulas.
"As they would come to learn," she wrote, "their service only confirmed their status as second-class Americans."
Norris has a reporter's instinct for knowing when to get out of the way and let people talk — whether it's the retired white policeman wistfully touting the benefits of segregation or the elderly black woman angrily unpacking ugly memories of Birmingham.
The meticulous re-creation of the historical record in The Grace of Silence has much to offer to today's national conversation on race. But its flaw is that Norris is unable to confidently ascribe meaning to much of what she discovers.
Norris accepts that her parents kept their stories to themselves to spare her from rancor growing up. But she also comes to understand that innocence carries its own burdens, that the cost of secrecy outweighs the gift of silence.