The Grace of Silence: A Memoir
by Michele Norris
Reviewed by Ebony Utley
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.
"Our parents felt we needed to know only so much," she writes. "No time for tears. No yearning for sympathy.… How can you soar if you're freighted down by the anger of your ancestors?" The Grace of Silence is Norris' attempt to understand her family's choice never to speak of these events.
Piecing together the Aunt Jemima period of her grandmother's life, Norris juxtaposes her uncle's pride in his mother's small-town fame -- "She put that costume on and she was a star" -- with her mother's shame at the humiliating image and Norris' own disbelief, ambivalence and fascination. She also cleverly critiques the historical symbolism of the iconic pancake-wielding "mammy" character, from Aunt Jemima's debut at the 1893 World's Fair in the form of a large and gregarious former slave to the 1994 ad campaign starring Gladys Knight.
While trying to grasp why her father intervened one night in an altercation with a white police officer and was shot and wounded, Norris explores the overlooked role of black WWII veterans in the U.S. civil-rights struggle. Bygone racism and resistance affect the present whether we discuss them or not, she suggests. We cannot move on until we tell the truth.
Norris illustrates the everyday cost of silence at seemingly minor moments: her mother's unexpressed anger when a white neighbor cuts down an apple tree rather than let the Norris children pick the fruit from a branch that overhangs their yard. Norris' failure, at age 26, to muster even a scowl when two white women in an airport misjudge her father, assuming he is a lush rather than a very ill man struggling to maintain his dignity.
Norris acknowledges that there could have been -- and perhaps should have been -- a more direct response to these incidents. Not speaking out may preserve the image of the "model minority," but these learned silences prohibit real conversations about race. With learned candor, she describes the corrosive effect of family stories left untold, showing how the denial of painful histories can only contribute to the anger, unease and mistrust of "post-racial" America. We may not hear those stories until we ask for them. But some things simply must be said.
Ebony Utley is an assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Long Beach, and Founder of theutleyexperience.com.