NPR Host Pens Book On Race, Family Secrets
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
In this tell-all age, where you can Google a prospective blind date or find your grandmother's birth certificate online, it seems downright old-fashioned to even think it possible to hide any major piece of information from your spouse, or especially your nosy kids. Family secrets, it would seem, would be a thing of the past. And yet untold stories remain a fixture of family life.
The new book, "The Grace of Silence," explores a story hidden by one man, Belvin Norris, Jr., from his wife Betty and his daughter Michele. That daughter is my colleague, Michele Norris, who co-hosts NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And in that book, she asks: How well do you know the people who raised you? Look around your dining room table. Look around at your loved ones, especially the elders, the grandparents and the aunts and the uncles who used to give you shiny new quarters and unvarnished advice. How much do you really know about their lives?
Michele Norris is with us now from Chicago Public Radio. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
MICHELE NORRIS: Michel, good to be here with you.
MARTIN: Now before we talk about the book you actually wrote, tell us about the book that you intended to write.
NORRIS: Yeah. I set out on a very different journey. I thought there was an interesting conversation about race taking place in the country in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential campaign and in the wake of the election of Barack Obama, and I wanted to swim in that conversation for awhile. I just wanted to listen to it and to eavesdrop on the conversation in private spaces, not the one that you hear on cable television, not the one that you hear in front of microphones, even on NPR. I wanted to talk to people in private spaces.
And I started listening to the hidden conversation - not just in listening to other people talk about race, but I also started listening more to the hidden conversation in my own family. And that's when I discovered some of these secrets, these things that my parents never, ever talked about. In fact, I didn't learn them from my parents. I learned them from uncles who were going through a period of dis-inhibition and shedding family stories.
And the more I learned the more I had to know. And the more I knew, the more I had to learn. And the old - the other book that I was working on just didn't feel right. At some point, I realized I'm writing the wrong book, and I had to set everything aside and just kind of pull back and start all over again.
MARTIN: And that leads really nicely to the secret that you uncovered in the course of reporting the book. So what was the big secret, and how did you come to find out about it?
NORRIS: I'm in Chicago right now, and when I learned of the - I actually learned two pretty big secrets about my parents in the course of working on this project. The one involving my father, I discovered just a few blocks from where I'm sitting right now. I was at a restaurant called The West Egg Cafe, and I was dining with my uncle, and he was on a rant of young people and why they're not voting and how they take things for granted and they don't realize the sacrifices that older people had made on their behalf.
And he just spits out, Michele, he says: Well, you know your father was shot -as if I knew this. And he went on to tell me what little he knew about it. He was still in the military when it happened, but what I learned first from him and then through a process of discovery and a great deal of investigation was that my father, in 1946, had returned to Birmingham at a moment when black veterans were streaming back into the city, eager to participate fully in American life. They had participated in that fight for democracy, and they wanted a taste of it back home. They wanted to vote. They wanted jobs. They wanted respect, and they were met with a white wall of resistance
And what I learned is that my father was going out one night, and a police officer tried to prevent him from entering a public building. And my father -someone I remembered as a very mild-mannered postal worker, a really kind guy who was very, very quiet - in that moment in 1946, when he was a much younger man, stood up to a police officer. And a scuffle ensued and a gun went off, and my father was wounded. He was shot in the leg. It was a case where the bullet grazed his leg, so it was a superficial wound.
But what I had to do to understand what that meant for him - and ultimately how it impacted me, even though it was never spoken about at home - is to understand the emotional wound that he carried forward, because what I was left, then, Michel, was with this image of this man I thought I knew so well, who was carrying around this weight that no one could see. But he knew it was there. And that's what - that's one of the many things that was so painful on working on this book is realizing that he was dragging this weight, you know, around with him all his life and trying so hard not to let us know - trying so hard not even to let his wife know that he had gone through this.
MARTIN: There were so many ripple effects from that story, I mean, that you explore in the book. The fact that he always had a slight limp and you thought he was, what, just being dashing or...
NORRIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...it was kind of his cool walk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: The fact that he and your mother were very careful about their appearance when they went out in public. You called them sartorial activists, but youre still left with the question: why do you think he never told you and certainly, never told his wife?
NORRIS: It was painful. You know, he left - apparently, when he left, he left the memory behind like an old sock, decided he didnt want to talk about it anymore. And it was perhaps because it was just too difficult for him to go back there in his mind. But after talking to so many other veterans who had similar experiences, perhaps, you know, they weren't shot, but had similar experiences, in that they served in a military in which they were marginalized because of the strict rules of segregation and then returned to a society where they were marginalized once again because of laws and because of custom that was common at that time, and in some cases, who were brutalized because America wasnt ready for what they represented - men in uniform, men who wanted to participate fully in life.
What they told me, to a person, is that they just dont talk about that. They put that away. And I think this may explain why. They created a narrative for their lives that was all about success, that was all about striving, that was all about moving somewhere better fast. And the indignities that they endured earlier in their life just didnt fit in that narrative. They redefined themselves or they decided that they would not be defined by the mistreatment that they faced early in their life.
And in that sense, that was probably a gift to me in some way because it would've been so easy for my father to be a malcontent. It would've been real easy for him to be angry at the world. And I think he wasnt, in part, because he had a natural temperament that was very sunny and very happy and, you know, and he was known as someone who always had an easy word and a bright smile. But I think part of it, Michel, was a decision that I'm not going to let this beat me, I'm not going to become that angry man that it would be so easy to be. I am going to move forward with hope instead of anger.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with my colleague, Michele Norris about her new book, "The Grace of Silence."
I am reminded that you are now in Chicago. Weve caught up with you in Chicago, where youre on your book tour and youve just left Birmingham...
MARTIN: ...which is where these dramatic events took place. And you used to go to Birmingham all the time as a child, as I recall. You went to Birmingham in the summer and visited and I wonder, what was it like to go back there with this new knowledge that you did not have when you were making all those trips as a child? What was it like?
NORRIS: This was the most difficult trip that I made. I went back and forth to Birmingham while I was reporting the story, but this time I went back as an author and as someone who had brought into the sunshine secrets that had been kept in the dark. And, you know, I had talked to my relatives about these things and some of them were complicit. You know, they knew about this incident and they just didnt talk about it and they were very angry at me when I started rooting around asking questions.
They understood why my father kept this a secret and they were perfectly willing to keep their own mouth shut. So this was a really difficult trip for me, Michel. And I spoke at the 16th Street Baptist Church, they asked me to do an event there...
MARTIN: Which I think is important to point out for those who are not aware of the history. The 16th Street Baptist Church is?
NORRIS: The place that a bomb exploded on a September morning and four little girls perished. And it was difficult for me to go back to that church because those little girls, Michel, growing up in my household, those little girls: Cynthia, Carol, Addie Mae and Denise, were like John, Paul, Ringo and George. We lifted them up in prayer all the time at the dinner table, but we also prayed for the men who brought those 19 sticks of dynamite into that building.
And it made me think about the messages that my parents passed on to us. And as they were telling us this, you know, dad knew about his own experience in Birmingham, his own experience with violence in Birmingham. So he was telling us lessons about, you know, praying for your friends and also praying for your enemies and keeping that secret to himself.
And I tell you, when I walked in that building, it was one of the hardest things I've had to do is to keep it together and speak - and speak to that audience as all these memories and all these, you know, realizations sort of washed over me. I thought that I had wrestled with this and I sort of understood this, and I realized that there's some pieces of the story that I will never fully understand and there are some laments that I will always carry forward.
And one of the big ones for me is whether, you know, my dad, he left this earth too soon. I was in my mid-20s and he was 62 years old. And I wonder if I didnt create a space for him to share that story, that maybe in, you know, the special brand of self-absorption that comes with living through your 20s, that maybe I didnt create a place for him to do that. And that's, in the end, what I hope this book will do for those who choose to read it, that it'll make them think about their own legacies and the importance of capturing your legacy, the importance of talking to the older people in you life to make sure that you really understand who they are.
You spoke to that question I raise in the book: how well do you really know the people who raised you? Chances are you dont know them fully because our parents and our aunts and uncles and our grandparents, they can be very careful about the history that they pass on. And it's not because they're dishonest, it's because they want the best for us. They dont want to weigh us down with their own frustrations.
MARTIN: And, you know, to that point, there was another secret that you discovered involving your maternal grandmother and a certain brand of pancake mix.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And what was that?
NORRIS: You know, discovering that your father was shot would be one, you know, that would be enough, really, to rock your world. In my case, you know, my mother didnt know about my dad shooting and it turned out that she was carrying around a secret of her own.
Her mother in the late 1940s and early 1950s had worked as itinerant Aunt Jemima. She traveled...
MARTIN: And you really mean that - an itinerant Aunt Jemima.
NORRIS: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: You dont mean that metaphorically. You mean dressing up in the gear with the scarf and the hoop skirt and making the pancakes.
NORRIS: Yes, I am. Doing pancake demonstrations, because this is a time when sort of the add water and stir era was new. She was hocking pancake mix, which was a new and somewhat novel product at the time. And mom never talked about this because it made her uncomfortable.
And when I learned about it, I didnt go immediately to shame, I was fascinated because I thought, well, wait a minute, she was traveling to small towns in the 1950s? Women didnt really travel at that time. And I was fascinated because I just didnt, well, maybe fascination is the wrong word in that case. I was sort of almost fatutzed(ph) because I thought, this doesnt fit the image of the woman that I know. The woman that I know was always dressed beautifully. And I remembered her always wearing a scarf tied under her chin - a silk scarf in sort of a Jackie O fashion. Now I had to think about her wearing a different kind of scarf, something you probably wouldnt even call a scarf, a kerchief, a bandanna, maybe been a do-rag.
But Michel, what I learned was something that helped this story go down a little bit easier for Ione Brown's children. Ione Brown was my grandmother. When she went to these small towns, I discovered she had a little routine. And the reason I discovered this is I found newspaper clippings of her, and under the headline, Aunt Jemima is coming to town, there's her picture. And there she is in her hoop skirt, apron and her headscarf. But what she told the reporter in these stories is that she would go to these towns and she knew that people in those towns had never seen a person of color, so she would talk in a certain way and she'd focus on the children because she knew that perhaps they held the hope for the future.
She would sing gospel songs because she wanted them to know that she was a Christian, a church woman and she probably said a church woman, because that's the way she would say that, and she would tell stories. But it was really important to her, she said, that she serve as sort of a cultural ambassador, even though she was depicting an advertising icon that was rooted in slavery.
And this is really interesting to me because when I did all this research on Aunt Jemima and how it was created, the sort of mythical advertising image, and how it evolved over time and I knew, I learned, you know, about what they had -the way they had advertised this product in the 1950s, what people in these small towns in her six-state region would see was someone who was very different than the Aunt Jemima they would meet if they picked up a magazine at that time, because in the magazines the Aunt Jemima spoke with a certain kind of slave patois.
She would talk about laissez, laissez, I sure serve some tantalizing pancakes. And they would spell this out phonetically to make to you understand that she didnt exactly use the King's English. Well, when Quaker Oats hired Ione Brown, they got more than they bargained for because she would actually use the King's English and she would, even though she was depicting this character, she would lift her up.
MARTIN: How do you think that writing this book has changed you?
NORRIS: You know, I - I'm going to answer with a bit of a question mark because I think I haven't settled yet. I find that new aspects of the story wash over me all the time as I see things differently or I discover things or as my children start asking me questions, and as they get older and as those questions will get sharper, it will wash over me yet anew.
I know one thing has changed for me, though, and its that I believe very strongly in the importance of trying to understand where youve come from and capturing your family legacy, in encouraging people to open up, in examining not just, you know, the letters that have been put away in boxes, but the memories that have been put away in people's minds, to give them an opportunity to talk about that because you understand. You have a much better sense of where youre going if you really truly, truly understand where youve been. And if youre able to then pass that on to yet the next generation, it's an incredible gift.
MARTIN: Michele Norris is the author of "The Grace of Silence: A Memoir." And, of course, she is one of the hosts of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We caught up with her in Chicago at Chicago Public Radio. Michele, thank you so much for speaking with us.
NORRIS: Michel, it's been great to be with you. Thanks so much.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Lets talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.