White Bear Lake, Minn. (Oct. 8, 2012) — Though shocking family secrets can come to light if you choose to write a memoir, it is still a task worth doing, Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, told a Century College audience on Oct. 2.
“There is grace in silence, but there’s power in history,” Norris told a packed audience in the Century theatre. “It is important to capture our family histories and record our stories.”
Norris’ memoir The Grace of Silence, the Century College 2012-2013 Common Book, started out as a book about how Americans talk and think about race. The book evolved, however, into a Norris family history that included two painful family secrets.
The first secret was that Norris’ grandmother, the ever-stylish Ione Brown, had worked for Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima. For years, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she traveled around to small Midwestern towns dressed in a hoop skirt and apron with a checked bandana on her head. Convenience cooking was new, and it was Brown’s job to encourage farm wives to purchase pancake mix that only required the addition of water.
“There was shame attached to this story because Aunt Jemima, back then, looked like a slave woman,” Norris said. “My mom was mad at my chatty uncle for spilling the beans.”
The other secret Norris uncovered was that her father, a black veteran returning from World War II, had been shot by a policeman in Birmingham, Alabama, during a scuffle over whether or not her father could enter a building.
“I was shocked to discover this,” said Norris. “I had to work really hard to uncover this story, and I was not popular with my family. But I had to know – why would he stand up to a cop in 1946 in Birmingham, Alabama?”
Norris’ research revealed that her father was probably fortunate that he only suffered a bullet wound that grazed his leg. At least six black veterans who returned from the war and pushed for their civil rights were killed and others were burned, beaten, castrated and blinded.
Norris’ father managed to put the incident behind him, move to Minnesota, get married, buy a house and work for the U.S. Postal Service. “My parents believed in the grace of silence,” said Norris. “You give children your ambitions, but not your anger.”
Thinking it was time for Americans to enter into deeper conversations about race, Norris started an initiative she calls The Race Card Project. Norris always disliked the phrase “playing the race card,” referring to someone of color using race to gain an advantage, so she decided to turn the phrase on its head. She asked people to describe their thoughts about race in just six words, print the words on a postcard, and then send them to her. The project touched a nerve, and Norris has received a torrent of cards, which she now records on a website called theracecardproject.com.
Century College is participating in The Race Card Project, and individuals can record their six words by going to the college website and clicking on alumni and community, The Common Book Project, and Join the Race Conversation at Century.
“There’s a hidden conversation about race in America,” said Norris. “When we are able to listen, we learn something about each other.”
Norris’ appearance was part of Century’s ongoing Speaker Series, which brings national speakers to campus several times per year.