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NPR's Michele Norris on her family's hidden history

Norris's memoir "The Silence of Grace" explores "the costs of keeping quiet."

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But I don't think he ever left it behind. I have this image of him carrying around this weight that none of us can see, that he knows is there, dragging it around with him.

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Q: You write that your family was obsessively circumspect, always trying to be perfect in every way to avoid giving anyone a reason to look down on them. Did that seem controlling?
It felt natural. It didn't feel oppressive. That was just the way it was. That was also part of the culture at the time: women dressed to go to the grocery store.
But my parents obviously took it to another step. They were trying to send a message to the outside world. That message lives in my DNA.

Q: What lessons do you hope your book imparts to your children?
The book has given them a history that is theirs, a history that I didn't fully understand when I was their age or even well into adulthood.

I hope they have the courage when the time comes, when they're old enough to have adult conversations, to ask my husband and myself, my sister, their aunts and uncles on the other side, about their lives. I hope we have the courage to be honest with them and think about what we tell them.

Our parents always tell us what they think we need to know. No parent wants to weigh down their children's pockets with rocks if they want them to soar. They're not dishonest. There's no malevolence in that, and they're not necessarily trying to withhold information for bad reasons. But at some point as adult children, perhaps you can handle that information. It’s a shame if you don't capture that history before it's too late.

Q. What does the title of your book mean?
I settled on this title after learning about my father's shooting, and the path he traveled as a man who returned as a veteran from World War II and faced a white wall of resistance, and a policeman's bullet that grazed his leg.

When he was a postal worker later, he was known as a guy with a real sunny disposition who always had a kind word and a bright smile. He was not angry, at least not outwardly.

He was part of a generation of black men and black veterans who were marginalized in the military and society and had every reason to be angry. It was easy to see how they'd become malcontents and grouse their way to their end of their lives. Instead, they decided to live these lives of utter rectitude. They set aside their personal grievances in order to help America become a better place, and that is an incredibly graceful act.

Randy Dotinga is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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