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The Grace of Silence: A Memoirby Michele Norris
"As the title of Michele Norris' memoir suggests, there can be valid reasons for staying quiet. But in the face of overt racism, silence exacts a striking price. It wasn't until long after her father's death in his 60s that Norris, a prize-winning journalist and co-host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, learned he had been wounded by a police officer's bullet just weeks after returning home from naval service in World War II. Nor had she been told that in the 1940s and '50s, her polished and eloquent maternal grandmother had worked for Quaker Oats as an itinerant Aunt Jemima, promoting pancake mix across six states." Ebony Utley, Ms. Magazine (Read the entire Ms. Magazine review)
Synopses & Reviews
In the wake of talk of a "post-racial America" upon the ascendance of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, set out, through original reporting, to write a book about "the hidden conversation on race" that is going on in this country. But along the way she unearthed painful family secrets — from her father's shooting by the Birmingham police within weeks of his discharge from service in World War II to her grandmother's peddling pancake mix as an itinerant Aunt Jemima.
In what became an intensely personal and bracing journey, Norris traveled from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South to explore "things left unsaid" by her family when she was growing up. Along the way she discovers how character is forged by both repression and revelation. She learns how silence became a form of self-protection and a means of survival for her parents — strivers determined to create a better life for their children at a time when America was beginning to experiment with racial equality — as it was for white Americans who grew up enforcing strict segregation (sometimes through violence) but who now live in a world where integration is the norm.
Extraordinary for Norris's candor in examining her own complex racial legacy, The Grace of Silence is also informed by hundreds of interviews with ordinary Americans and wise observations about evolving attitudes toward race in America. It is concerned with assessing the truth of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion that vis-à-vis race, ours is a nation of cowards, for often what is left unsaid is more important than what is openly discussed.
"In this eloquent and affecting memoir, Norris, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, examines both her family's racial roots and secrets. Spurred on by Barack Obama's campaign and a multipart NPR piece she spearheaded about race relations in America, Norris realized that she couldn't fully understand how other people talked about race until she understood how her own family dealt with it, particularly with their silence regarding two key events. She intersperses memories of her Minneapolis childhood with the events that shaped her parents' lives: her maternal grandmother's short career as a traveling 'Aunt Jemima,' which always embarrassed her mother, and her father's shooting by a white policeman in Alabama in 1946. It is the shooting, which occurred soon after Belvin Norris Jr. was honorably discharged from the navy, that forms the narrative and emotional backbone of Norris's story, as she travels to Birmingham to try and piece together what happened. Though the quest is a personal one, Norris poignantly illuminates the struggle of black veterans returning home and receiving nothing but condemnation for their service. The issue of race in America is the subject of an ongoing conversation, and Norris never shies away from asking the same difficult questions of herself that she asks of others because 'all of us should be willing to remain at the table even when things get uncomfortable.' (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"An insightful, elegant rendering of how the history of an American family illuminates the history of our country." Toni Morrison
"History at its best is about telling stories — stories about people who lived before, about events in the past that create the contours of the present....In the hands of a gifted storyteller, a memoir becomes more than a chronicle of the writer's life. It becomes the history of a time and a place. So it is with this magnificent memoir — one of the most eloquent, moving and insightful memoirs I have ever read." Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of the New York Times bestseller Team of Rivals
"Norris deftly explores the "unprecedented, hidden and robust conversation about race" now taking place throughout the United States.... Outstanding." Kirkus Reviews
"A balance-beam writer, Norris looks at both sides of every question while seeking truth's razor-edge. But she is also a remarkably warm, witty, and spellbinding storyteller." (Starred Review) Booklist
Norris, host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, set out to write a book about "the hidden conversation on race" and in doing so unearthed painful family secret — from her father's shooting by the Birmingham police within weeks of his discharge from service in World War II to her grandmother's peddling pancake mix as an itinerant Aunt Jemima.
In the wake of talk of a “postracial” America upon Barack Obama’s ascension as president of the United States, Michele Norris, cohost of National Public Radio’s flagship program All Things Considered, set out to write, through original reporting, a book about “the hidden conversation” on race that is unfolding nationwide. She would, she thought, base her book on the frank disclosures of others on the subject, but she was soon disabused of her presumption when forced to confront the fact that “the conversation” in her own family had not been forthright.
Norris unearthed painful family secrets that compelled her to question her own self-understanding: from her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer weeks after his discharge from the navy at the conclusion of World War II to her maternal grandmother’s peddling pancake mix as an itinerant Aunt Jemima to white farm women in the Midwest. In what became a profoundly personal and bracing journey into her family’s past, Norris traveled from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South to explore the reasons for the “things left unsaid” by her father and mother when she was growing up, the better to come to terms with her own identity. Along the way she discovered how her character was forged by both revelation and silence.
Extraordinary for Norris’s candor in examining her own racial legacy and what it means to be an American, The Grace of Silence is also informed by rigorous research in its evocation of time and place, scores of interviews with ordinary folk, and wise observations about evolving attitudes, at once encouraging and disturbing, toward race in America today. For its particularity and universality, it is powerfully moving, a tour de force.
About the Author
Michele Norris, host of All Things Considered, was chosen as Journalist of the Year in 2009 by the National Association of Black Journalists and is cowinner of a Dupont-Columbia Award for The York Project: Race and the 2008 Vote. She has appeared on Meet the Press, Charlie Rose, and The Chris Matthews Show, and has written for, among other publications, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.
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