The Grace of Silence

NPR radio host Michele Norris raises questions of race as she explores the secrets kept by her Midwestern family.

The Grace of Silence By Michele Norris Pantheon 208 pp.,$24.95

If you listen to National Public Radio, you know her voice: “This is MEE-shell Norris…” A cohost of “All Things Considered,” Michele Norris is heard in cars, homes, and offices all over America. Her intonations are probably as familiar to you as a friend’s – although most of us likely know next to nothing about her beyond the strum of her vocal chords.

Not that Norris is dying to dish. In her uneven memoir, The Grace of Silence, Norris describes a Minnesota upbringing that held up reticence as a virtue. But in covering the 2008 presidential campaign, Norris was so moved by voters’ candid conversations about race that she was inspired to give voice to her own history as a middle-class, Midwestern, African-American.

The result is a peculiar combination of anecdotes, reporting, reminiscences, personal essays, history, and sleuthing – a cathartic patchwork that may ultimately have been more satisfying for the writer to produce than the reader to consume.

Having said that, the narrative confusion of “The Grace of Silence” accurately and even poignantly reflects the author’s feelings about how her parents handled their racial identity and how the Norris family history intersected with America’s. Together, the writer and reader struggle to make sense of complex, ambiguous reactions.

The book is loosely organized around two family secrets that Norris discovered as an adult. In the first, Norris learns that her maternal grandmother, a dignified woman whom Norris and others respected immensely, worked in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a traveling Aunt Jemima, paid by the Quaker Oats Company to dress as a plantation slave and promote pancake mix to Midwestern farm wives.

In the second, Norris finds out that as a young man just back from serving in World War II, her father got into a scuffle with a white police officer, who drew a gun and accidentally grazed Mr. Norris in the leg with a bullet; her father spent a night in jail.

A few weeks later he left Birmingham, Ala., and eventually settled in Minnesota. There, young Michele was raised in a household so dedicated to exemplary citizenship that in the middle of winter she was required to get up extra early to shovel the sidewalk around the house before anyone else woke up.

For Norris, the family secrets are especially profound because they don’t square with her image of beloved relatives. For readers, the more meaningful aspect may be Norris’s excellent reporting on under-told stories in American history. Relaxing into expository prose, she describes how the Aunt Jemima icon evolved over the years along with attitudes about race, and how African-American World War II veterans, imbued with patriotic authority, set the stage for the civil rights movement.

Norris also effectively succeeds at bringing to life ambitious-but-irreverent, proud-but-worried, emotionally complicated men and women. Recording the lives of human beings is a worthwhile enterprise in any case, and it’s especially effective in grounding conversations about race and history in real experience. If only for this reason, “The Grace of Silence” resonates beyond its halting narrative.

Norris has ably consecrated her family to the public record, and with the deft touch of a journalist, she made this reader, at least, want to turn to her neighbor and talk.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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