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Bill Maxwell

Harsh truths covered by years of silence


The election of Barack Obama as our first black president was supposed to usher in an era of postracial, colorblind nirvana.

Michele Norris, a co-host of National Public Radio's flagship program All Things Considered, initially believed that, at the very least, the Obama election would improve the conversation about race in America.

In her recently published memoir, The Grace of Silence, she describes the impetus for writing the book: "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 into trouble or, even worse, reveal us for who we really are. We weren't so much talking about race as talking around it."

She went to York, Pa., to eavesdrop on people's conversations, to "dig deep into race in America" for a multipart series for NPR. At the beginning, she sensed that "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."

As she began talking to her relatives, however, she discovered something profound about her own racial identity.

"What I did not know until I began this project is that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents' silence," she writes. "I originally wanted to write about how 'other people' talked about race. That presumption was swiftly disabused when I learned about secrets in my own family that had purposely kept from me."

She learned that her father, Belvin Norris, had been shot by a white police officer in the Pythian Temple Building in downtown Birmingham. The irony was that Belvin Norris, like thousands of other recently discharged black men, had served honorably in a segregated unit in the U.S. military during World War II.

Belvin Norris, a Birmingham native, paid a fine and agreed to leave his birthplace in a hurry. He moved to Chicago. Michele Norris also learned that her maternal grandmother had worked as a traveling "Aunt Jemima," showing white housewives how to cook pancakes.

Norris' parents never told her about these denigrating experiences. Even more, Belvin Norris never told his wife, Betty, about the shooting. He took his secret to his grave. Betty Norris never mentioned the family's traveling Aunt Jemima to her daughter. She had to learn about these events from interviewing relatives and older neighbors.

I was in Birmingham on other business when I learned that Norris would be discussing The Grace of Silence at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as part of a 30-city tour. This was a fitting site for the discussion. It is where, on Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday morning, members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded a bomb that killed four black girls and wounded 20 other parishioners as they prepared for services.

Why did Norris' parents remain silent? Why did so many others of that generation take their experiences of horrific racial abuse and terrorism to their graves?

Norris writes: "In my childhood home, the window to that painful past was never widely opened. Instead, stories were meted out judiciously, in morsels and tidbits. … 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?"

Norris is married with children. A member of the audience asked her to explain what she tells her children about the past and about the realities of race in America.

She did not have a glib or calculated answer. Instead, she voiced the uncertainty of a realist. "My parents chose not to tell me, but I have to tell my children," she said. "I have to figure our how to tell them that and how I tell them in a way that they're not angry or confused. ... That's hard. It's not easy, because it's a difficult history. I want to make sure that they take the right lessons from the history, not that America was an awful place but that America went through an awful time."

I left the church believing that Norris was right. Silence — at the right time — can be appropriate. There are times when it's better to wait before discussing harsh truths. But eventually, the truth about the past must be discussed and passed on to the next generation.

Harsh truths covered by years of silence 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 6:47pm]
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