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 It was my mother who initially signaled subtly that she was ready to talk about this, and then

sent further signals that she might be ready to let me write about it. Eventually, she actually

said out loud that she wanted me to write this book when she was gone. Once I got that green

light from her, once she stepped in the boat, I knew I had to do it to honor our family



Michele Norris: Breaking the Silence Gracefully

Interview by Kam Williams


Born on September 7, 1961, Michele Norris was the youngest of three sisters raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Betty and Belvin Norris, Jr. Since studying Communications at the University of Minnesota, Michele has embarked on a stellar career in journalism.  

Best known as the current co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, she was recently honored with the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University Award for The York Project: Race and the ‘08 Vote. In 2009, she was named the Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists.

Ms. Norris has written for a variety of publications, including The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. As a correspondent for ABC News from 1993 to 2002, she earned Emmy and Peabody awards for her contribution to the network’s 9/11 reporting.

Michele lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Broderick Johnson, and their three children. Here, she discusses The Grace of Silence, a poignant memoir exploring unspoken family skeletons revolving around the race.

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Kam Williams: Michele, thanks for the time. I loved the book.

Michele Norris: Thank you. I took a look at your review of it, and it’s clear that you had dived right into it. And it sounds like I had a surprise for you. [Laughs]

Kam Williams: Yeah, although I’ve listened to you for years on the radio I never knew you were black. So, that made the content of your memoir all the more surprising, since it revolves so much around racial issues. My readers came up with such great questions for you that I’d like to get right to them. FSU grad Laz Lyles says, “I'd like to know what gave you the courage to write the book, considering that your family dealt with tragedy and adversity in a very private and quiet way.”

Michele Norris: This was a difficult journey… It was my mother who initially signaled subtly that she was ready to talk about this, and then sent further signals that she might be ready to let me write about it. Eventually, she actually said out loud that she wanted me to write this book when she was gone. Once I got that green light from her, once she stepped in the boat, I knew I had to do it to honor our family history, and I knew I had to do it right. And once I started down that road, there was no turning back for me. I had a voracious appetite to learn all I could, not just about my grandparents’ individual experiences and what had happened to my father in Alabama, but about the world they’d lived in. I needed to know how that had impacted me, because it was clear that I’d been shaped not just by the things they did talk about, but also by what they didn’t dare talk about.    

Kam Williams: I know what you mean. My father undoubtedly encountered a great deal of discrimination while serving in the segregated U.S. military during World War II, and again as one of the first blacks to integrate the NYC Fire Department. Yet he never complained about any of it to his kids during our childhood.

Michele Norris: Think about that…Think about your father... There’s so much in that thought you shared. It would have been so easy for him to come home and let it all out, and grouse until bedtime, because he had to keep it all bottled up inside while he was at work. Imagine if that had been the house you’d grown up in, if that had been what you heard. That’s what I was trying to get at when I titled this book, The Grace of Silence. A generation of Americans who had so many reasons to be angry at the world, and who could’ve instructed their children to brace themselves for a torrent of hatred and low expectations, instead set high expectations and armed their offspring with ambition instead of rage. That was incredible, for a generation to suffer all that they did and yet to choose to order their priorities so that their children would not be weighed down by their pain. They understood that if you really want your kids to fly, you don’t put stones in their pockets. 

Kam Williams: Something I like about your book is how besides discussing black silence it also explores the corresponding skeletons in white folks’ closets.

Michele Norris: I very much wanted to understand how life was lived on the other side of the color line, particularly in my father’s Alabama in the Forties and Fifties. Part of what I want people to take away from the book is that white America had its secrets, too. It is quite obvious that they had also had stopped talking about them. So, because people on both sides of the color line decided not to speak about that period, we don’t have a really good understanding of what preceded the sixties’ Civil Rights Era.

Kam Williams: I was struck by the frank reflections of the white woman who admitted hearing her father say, “We have to have a good lynching every once in a while to keep the nigger in his place.”

Michele Norris: And she recalled how shocking it had been for her to hear it coming from her father, because he had forged friendships across the color line, and wasn’t a member of the Klan or even a redneck racist. There are a lot of people who grew up around that sort of sentiment. So, if we really want to talk honestly about race, then that conversation is probably going to get a little bit prickly. It may make your stomach churn. It may make you a lot more than merely uncomfortable.

Kam Williams: Reverend Florine Thompson asks, “How were you affected by the revelation of the family secret that your father had been shot in his Navy uniform by a white police officer right after returning to Birmingham at the end of World War  II?

Michele Norris: It affected me deeply, and in ways that I’m still discovering… [Pauses] Sorry, I can’t really find words that can fully encompass the depth my pain about what transpired. I was so surprised to realize that my father, who had a sunny disposition and such a warm and kind temperament, must have nonetheless been dragging around this huge weight which we just couldn’t see. It’s really hard to reconcile his emotional burden with the fact that I never had an opportunity to talk to him about it. [Sighs] That’s really hard to reconcile… and still affects me on a personal level in many ways. I don’t know if I will ever get used to saying that my father was shot.

Kam Williams: Reverend Thompson would also like to know, “How important is spirituality in your daily life?”

Michele Norris: Very. It was very important in the household growing up, and it is a rock that I reach for many times a day. It is a gift that I try to give my children with the knowledge that there is something larger than them that will guide them and protect them and give them strength at moments when things perhaps don’t make sense. 

Kam Williams: Children’s book author Irene Smalls says, “The Grace of Silence is in many ways every black person's story. My family moved from I don't know where South Carolina. To this day my family does not talk about their lives in the South. Is there grace in silence? Should we, as the next generation of blacks, be unearthing the skeletons and pain of what our grandparents endured under Jim Crow? Or should we let sleeping dogs lie? What lessons can we learn?”    

Michele Norris: There are a lot of questions there. I’ll try to answer a few. I believe there is grace in silence. Still, I think it is worth trying to go back to unearth some of those secrets. To use Irene’s metaphor, it’s time to awaken those sleeping dogs, but to do it respectfully. It is incumbent upon those of us raised by the generation that had to endure the indignities of Jim Crow to demonstrate a certain grace in the silence that accompanies being a good listener, and thus providing the space for a great unburdening. I feel keenly that, at some point, the elders who locked away their stories will suddenly want to talk about them. My father left this earth in 1988, and my great regret in life is that I will have to go to my own grave wondering whether I failed to create a space for him to share his story. So, when those of his generation remaining are ready to talk, we have to make sure that we’re willing to listen. But we have to lead them there.  

Kam Williams: Attorney Bernadette Beekman says, “I always wondered about the pronunciation of her name. [“Mee-shell”] Why the emphasis on the first syllable?”

Michele Norris: I don’t exactly quite know why my father stepped on the first syllable like that, but I proudly honor him now by insisting that people pronounce it the way that he did.   

Kam Williams: Bernadette notes that the title of your book was originally going to be "Say What." She says, “I love the new title. It's especially poignant since you relate your family's story of silence. I heard only for the first time certain stories of my own parents living through what we would consider appalling acts of racism. Why did you change the title?”

Michele Norris: Originally, I really liked that title because it was a double entendre which could be interpreted in several ways. But when the anecdotes in the book started to take an intimate, personal, and very revealing turn, “Say What” seemed too flippant, and didn’t match the gravitas of the project anymore.

Kam Williams: Yale grad Tommy Russell says, “Holy Shamoly! I listen to NPR every day and only recently realized that Michele Norris was black... Amazing!” He asks, "What do you think the biggest threat to media is nowadays? Biased reporting?  The decline of traditional revenue models for print, TV, and radio companies?"

Michele Norris: There are many threats. I don’t know which one’s the biggest. Part of the problem is the instant news culture. So many people are looking for news on the go. If you really want to understand the world, you’re not going to by consuming news in the form of bite-sized haikus. I’m sorry to step up on a soapbox, but I have strong feelings about this.      

Kam Williams: Tommy is curious about whether you ever watch Fox News?

Michele Norris: I do, on a regular basis.

Kam Williams: And he’d like to know whether you get chills at work when you hear the opening of for All Things Considered

Michele Norris: [Chuckles] I don’t exactly get chills but every day, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, I get this little adrenaline rush, even if I’m not on the air, like weekends.

Kam Williams: Harriet Pakula Teweles notes that when Charles Osgood signs off on Sunday Morning, he says, "I'll see you on the radio." She says, “For those who haven't been able to see you, but now can, what do you hope they will see that they may not have seen before?”

Michele Norris: Wow, that’s an interesting question! I hope they see someone who’s curious and open to hearing all kinds of things. It’s been nice to have been somewhat anonymous being in radio, but I’m not anymore. Although it’s called The Grace of Silence, my hope is that this book will start small conversations in intimate settings like kitchen tables, workplace break rooms, and college dormitories.

Kam Williams: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

Michele Norris: Did you get lunch today? [LOL]

Kam Williams: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?

Michele Norris: I am often afraid. I’m not Wonder Woman. But I was lucky enough to have been taught as a child by nuns to stare down my fears every day by doing something that absolutely terrified me. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now. 

Kam Williams: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?

Michele Norris: I am… I’m blessed.

Kam Williams: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?

Michele Norris: A minute ago in the course of this conversation. [LOL] A good sense of humor is something I try to hold onto. My father always said, “You have to laugh to keep from crying, and boy was he right about that.” 

Kam Williams: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?

Michele Norris: I just re-read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It was required summer reading for all the parents at my children’s school. It’s a wonderful book which is great for generating some interesting conversation.

Kam Williams: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod? 

Michele Norris: My iPod is always on shuffle. But if you want to know what artist really has got my juices going, I am just a stone-cold Janelle Monae addict. The girl is sassy and smart, and she’s got the dance moves and the attitude. I defy you to sit still listening to her. I just can’t wait to see what she does next.

Kam Williams: What is your favorite dish to cook?

Michele Norris: Oh, I cook all the time. But my favorite dish to cook is gumbo at Christmas. The Christmas gumbo is special, it takes two days to make and it’s really good. 

Kam Williams: Just last week, Raven-Symone’ told me gumbo was her favorite dish to cook, too. The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?

Michele Norris: [Laughs] Target has to be my favorite because I have kids to put through college. I’ll tell you who I like, though, Tahari. And I love Tracey Reece but, like I said, I seem to spend a lot more time in Target than in any designer boutiques.

Kam Williams: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

Michele Norris: That my children be happy.

Kam Williams: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

Michele Norris: A work in progress.

Kam Williams: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?

Michele Norris: The twinkly lights at Christmas, when I was 4.

Kam Williams: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?

Michele Norris: I breathe deeply, and I pray.

Kam Williams: Have you ever wished you could have your anonymity back?

Michele Norris: I feel like I still have it, but you can check back with me on that.

Kam Williams: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Michele Norris: Work hard, write often.

Kam Williams: The Tavis Smiley questions. First, how introspective are you?

Michele Norris: Very. I don’t think anybody could walk the journey that I just did without being duly introspective.

Kam Williams: Secondly, Tavis asks, how do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?

Michele Norris: That she did well by her family. I’m going to borrow a line from Thurgood Marshall, “She did the best she could with what she had.”

Kam Williams: Michele, thanks again for the interview, and for writing a very important book which, in my estimation, might have a salutary effect on the culture.  

Michele Norris: Thanks Kam, and all the best to you.

*   *   *   *   *

The Grace of Silence: A Memoir

By Michele Norris

 Book Review by Kam Williams


“As a young man, my father had been shot by a white policeman, but never spoke about the incident after leaving Alabama and moving north. He never even told my mother. He took the story to his grave… Every household is different but in my childhood home the window to that painful past was never widely opened.  

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?”

Excerpted from the Introduction (pgs. xi-xii)

I’ll be honest, I’ve listened to Michele Norris for years on National Public Radio in her capacity as host of All Things Considered without knowing that she was black. After all, I couldn’t see her, and she speaks in a fairly nondescript Standard American English accent which makes it difficult to discern her ethnic roots.

But when I received a copy of The Grace of Silence, it was easy to see from her picture on the cover that she’s a sister. Still, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about how frank her autobiography might be in terms of embracing her African-American identity, given that it doesn’t play a role in her professional persona.

Quite surprisingly, it turns out that her heartbreaking memoir moved me to tears, as she wistfully recounts her family’s quiet, dignified way of dealing with racism and discrimination. Whether it was her parents having to witness a mass exodus of their neighbors via white flight after integrating a neighborhood in Minnesota in the early Sixties or, decades later, her father Belvin’s being teased for being drunk when he was actually suffering from a malignant brain tumor during the last days of his life, Michele describes lives painfully limited in certain respects by the color line.

She further recalls a litany of humiliations endured by relatives before she was born, such as her maternal grandmother who was employed by Quaker Oats to travel around the country dressed as Aunt Jemima in bandana and apron to give pancake cooking demonstrations at State Fairs and the like. Particularly poignant is the painstaking lengths she goes to resurrect the besmirched name of her father long after being falsely accused of a crime.

For following his honorable discharge from the military after serving in World War II, he returned to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, reasonably expecting to enjoy equality. He and his fellow veterans felt that they had earned the right for black folks to vote by fighting and dying for their country, so they began making the trek to the courthouse downtown to politely attempt to register.

In an incident which was subsequently covered-up by a falsified police report covered with lies, her father was shot while wearing his Navy uniform by a police officer who charged him with attempted robbery and resisting arrest. The truth unearthed by his intrepid reporter daughter during a return to Birmingham belatedly clears Belvin’s name, even if his innocence had been impossible to prove back in the Jim Crow South.

Though railroaded and shamed, Michele points out that he was actually very lucky to have survived the confrontation at a time when whites felt, “We have to have a good lynching every once in a while to keep the nigger in his place.” A very intimate, riveting and revealing cultural keepsake apt to resonate deeply with any African-American family inclined to reflect honestly on the oft-unspoken legacy of coping for generations in a world where whites knew they could get away with anything.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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posted 5 October 2010




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