Michele Norris has been a co-host on NPR's All Things Considered since 2002. In 2009, she was named "Journalist of the Year" by the National Association of Black Journalists. Before coming to NPR, Norris was correspondent for ABC News. Her new memoir is called The Grace of Silence.
"One of the enduring sorrows of my life," Norris writes, "is that my father never met my husband or my children, pictured here on the day my stepson graduated from college." From left: son, Norris; husband, Broderick Johnson; stepson, Broddy; daughter, Aja; and Norris.
Michele Norris, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, can still picture her father vividly: Belvin Norris Jr. walked a little unevenly, with a touch of syncopation. She never thought much of the very slight limp until 2008 — long after her father's death — when her uncle made a shocking, off-hand comment.
"I was having breakfast with my Uncle Joe," Norris tells her NPR colleague, Steve Inskeep. "He was on this rant about how young people have it easy, and they don't know what other people have sacrificed for them." Between spoonfuls of oatmeal, Uncle Joe said matter-of-factly: "Well, you know your dad was shot."
The Grace of Silence: A Memoir By Michele Norris Hardcover, 208 pages Pantheon List price: $24.95
Norris had no idea; her father had never told her. The revelation drove her to launch an investigation into her family's history — and their place in the larger, painful history of race in America — stories which she tells in her new memoir, The Grace Of Silence.
'He Put It Aside'
Belvin Norris, an African-American from the South, moved to Minnesota and bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. On snowy mornings, he'd shovel the sidewalks before anybody else woke up, Norris says, as if to announce that the black family on the block had their house in order.
It was difficult for Norris to find out what really happened to her father during his youth in Alabama. The shooting occurred in Birmingham in 1946, and almost everyone involved in it had already died. The event was not covered by the media.
Norris has determined that this much is true: Her father was a veteran of the Navy and had just returned to Birmingham, Ala. The city had been transformed by World War II — it was full of steel mills, and many people had migrated there to take advantage of defense industry jobs. Veterans of the war returned home to a country in transition.
"[Black veterans] had fought for democracy overseas," Norris says, "and they were hungry for a taste of it back home."
Just days after her father returned, his fellow black veterans marched in lockstep through the streets of downtown Birmingham. They converged at the courthouse, and walked inside to assert their right to vote. "Birmingham wasn’t ready for that," Norris says.
hide caption"I am my father's daughter," Norris writes in her memoir.
Courtesy Michele Norris
"I am my father's daughter," Norris writes in her memoir.
Courtesy Michele Norris
Belvin Norris was not at the demonstration that day, but he and his brother Woodrow had gone out for the evening for an event at the Pythian Temple — one of two buildings in Birmingham that housed the city's black establishment. Tensions in the city were high, and as the brothers approached the elevators, police officers cut them off. One officer stuck a police baton in Belvin's face.
Norris, who remembers her father as nonconfrontational, was initially surprised to learn that he swatted the officer's billy club aside — it was "the kind of thing that would get you in a whole lot of trouble in 1946 in Birmingham," Norris says. In the scuffle that ensued, one of the officers pointed a gun at Belvin's chest. Woodrow deflected the gun and it discharged — hitting Belvin in the leg. He and Woodrow were arrested.
Norris' father suffered a "superficial physical wound," Norris says, but she knows the event must have affected him deeply — and she wishes she understood how.
"I yearn to be able to talk to him about this," she says. "He put it aside, and he left it in his past like a forgotten sock, [but] I know that it had to have lived somewhere deep inside him."
'Not With Anger, But With Hope'
While writing her memoir, Norris wrestled to understand why her father never told her about the shooting. She grew up surrounded by a lot of relatives, all of whom knew the story. But nobody thought to tell her about it while her father was still alive.
Norris says she has come to accept her father's decision not to burden her with what had happened to him. The title of her memoir, The Grace of Silence, is in honor of what she calls his "incredibly graceful act" of shielding her from his past.
"Our parents tell us what they think we need to know," Norris says. "And my father didn't think I needed to know [about the shooting]. He wanted to make sure that my path forward was uncluttered by his pain."
Had she known about this painful episode, Norris says, she certainly would have been a different child, and likely would have been a different adult.
Belvin Norris' choice to leave the past behind is representative of his generation of black veterans, Norris says — these men had fought for their country overseas, and then had to fight again for their dignity back at home.
"They had every reason to be angry at America," Norris says. "They had every reason to be disappointed with their country. … They moved forward not with anger but with hope. They woke up every day trying to show America what they could be. And in doing that [they were trying] to show America what it could be."
Now a parent herself, Norris says she appreciates now more than ever how wise her parents were. "I'm raising children now, and I have to decide every day what I tell them," Norris says.
Though her father never shared this dark chapter of his past, Norris is at peace with the way she has made his story public. "I wondered: What would Dad say about this? What would he think about this? And I decided that I think he would be OK."
The Grace of Silence: A Memoir By Michele Norris Hardcover, 208 pages Pantheon List price: $24.95
Even in the most terrifying moments at a sterile hospital, there is some comfort in knowing that a world you recognize is just outside and beyond the parking garage. You can ﬁxate on a familiar image as a doctor shaves years off your life with each sentence. He can talk all he wants about therapies and operations, but you're thinking of the parking lot where you taught your daughter to drive, or the gas station that uses red reﬂective press-on letters to spell out a different Bible verse each week, like "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." While the doctor yammers on, you're thinking of the grizzled gas station attendant who climbs the ladder to change the sign, and wondering what pearl of wisdom he might offer in light of the news you just got.
In Fort Wayne, in a large hospital in an unfamiliar city, we were confronting an unknown illness that had swiftly robbed my father of his ability to carry out the most basic functions. We were looking at complicated surgery and, at best, a long and complex recovery, so the doctors suggested that we quickly move Dad back to Minnesota, where he could be treated closer to home.
We wanted to get Dad on the ﬁrst ﬂight to the Twin Cities, but his gait was unsteady and he seemed increasingly disoriented. He clutched my arm as we walked through the airport; he kept shooting me tight little smiles: reassurance. I wasn't buying it. By now his speech was so slurred that only I could understand him, and so labored that he wasn't able even to whisper. It took him so much effort and focus to spit out a sound that it was slightly explosive when it arrived, like a sputtering engine in a hushed area.
At the airport we sat across from two stout middle-aged blond women with wet-set curls and matching pink satin jackets. They must have been on their way to a convention or a sorority gathering; they were electric with excitement and frosted up like high-calorie confections, constantly riﬂing through their pocketbooks for mirrored compacts, then checking their makeup or blotting their lipstick. I remember them so well because they were sitting next to a large Amish or Mennonite family.
The men had long beards and wore suspenders. The women had long braids and long dresses, and their heads were covered by little white hats that looked like fancy French fry baskets. They seemed uncomfortable with the constant chatter of the satin dolls. They, too, noticed the women's prying eyes and "get a load of this" gestures, though the taciturn demeanor of the Amish rendered them perhaps slightly less interesting specimens than Dad and me.
When my dad tried to lean toward me to ask a question, his words sputtered forth like bricks tumbling from a shelf. The satin dolls found it hard to mind their own business. They stared and pointed every time Dad attempted to speak. They didn't try to hide their disparagement, one of them harrumphing loud enough for anyone to hear, "Goodness sakes, it's not even noon yet!"
After spending a lifetime trying to be a model minority — one of the few black men in his neighborhood, at his workplace, or on his daughters' school committees — my father now sat facing the condemnation of the two blond scolds. They had apparently concluded that he was an early morning lush instead of a gray-haired man ﬁghting a losing battle with a devastating disease.
Here is the conundrum of racism. You know it's there, but you can't prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation. Those pink satin ladies were strangers to me, so I have no idea if they would have been as quick to judge a gray-haired white man with impaired speech. However, I do know this: the fact that they were white women added mightily to my father's humiliation. I knew my father felt the sting of their judgment. I knew it because he kept pushing up his cardigan sleeve and futzing with his wrist, as if he'd left home without his Timex. But it was not the wrist on which he wore his windup watch. It was the wrist where the plastic bracelet had been afﬁxed at the hospital. His awkward gestures were a silent plea to the satin dolls to notice the hospital bracelet. My heart breaks every time I think of the look on his face that day.
The jut of his chin showed indignation, but the sag of his shoulders and the crease in his brow conveyed something different. Something hovering between anger and shame. There was also, however, a hint of grace. I see that now that I have come to understand my father better, as a man who was always in tight control of his emotions. I believe now that he was trying not just to salvage his dignity but also to absolve the two women from dishonor. A less controlled, more impulsive man might have responded by giving those women the ﬁnger to shut them up. My father drew strength from reaching past anger.
The aphorism "Kill them with kindness" might have been penned with a man like Belvin Norris Jr. in mind. By ﬁddling with his wrist he was saying, "If only they knew," rather than "Shame on you."
Dad boarded the plane early because the ﬂight crew knew he would need extra time to settle into his seat and because they wanted to check his medical release from the hospital. He was ﬂying alone that morning. I planned to drive his Oldsmobile back to Minneapolis and meet him there the next morning, a decision I have spent a lifetime regretting. Before walking down the jetway, he motioned for the nurse and the ﬂight crew to wait a second. He leaned toward me as if he wanted to tell me something, but he couldn't get words out. He kept looking over his shoulder, aware of the ﬂight crew watching and waiting, and perhaps wondering whether the satin dolls were also taking it all in. He kissed me on the cheek, a loving but clumsy gesture. His balance was off, so it was almost as if we were bumping heads. I didn't mind, and I certainly didn't care who was watching as we locked in a long embrace. My eyes were closed, ﬁghting back tears, so I barely noticed when the ﬂight attendant crept into our circle of grief to gently remind us that they had to stay on schedule. The attendant lightly cupped my father's elbow and led him away. It is disturbing to see your parent treated like a schoolchild, yet amusing to watch a man grin like a lucky teenager when a pretty woman takes his arm.
As I walked away, the satin dolls gazed at me. They must have overheard the chat about Dad's medical release because now they wore pouty, ingratiating smiles. Lipstick contrition. I walked past them and smiled back. It hurts to recall my response; I, like my father, had reached beyond anger to offer conciliation instead. I had every right to throw my father's humiliation in their faces. Spitting at them was, of course, out of bounds, but at the very least I should have served up a scowl.
I should have made them squirm. I should have been the black girl that certain white women are conditioned to fear most.
I didn't do any of that. I am my father's daughter, and such caustic gestures weren't in my DNA. I was raised by a model minority to be a model minority, and to achieve that status, certain impulses had to be suppressed. Years later, I understand both the reason and its consequence.
I was almost out of the waiting area when I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned, thinking it might be one of the women, intent on apologizing, but there was no nail polish on the hand touching my arm. The hand was large and calloused, marked by raised splotches resembling coffee stains. A bearded man held my forearm; he called me "ma'am," though it sounded like "Mom." "I'll watch over your pa," he said before darting back to join his family.
I wonder what my father had wanted to tell me, but couldn't, right before he'd boarded the plane. More of his classic lunch-box wisdom? "Learn all you can" or "Save your money" or "Don't eat too much late at night"? More than twenty years later, as still I mourn, I wonder if he was trying to impart some eternal verity before his ﬁnal ﬂight home to Minneapolis. This would be the last time I saw him alert. Within a day Dad slipped into a coma. Within a week a fast-growing brain tumor took his life.
Excerpted from The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris Copyright 2010 by Michele Norris. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc.