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The election of President Barack Obama freed up many in the older generation of African Americans to speak about things they had kept secret or kept silent about. Many of those were things their children, their relatives and even their spouses were not aware of.
The California Lectures guest this week, Michele Norris, cited this as one of the reasons she was able to learn more about her family history while writing her new book “The Grace of Silence.”
Norris is best known as a host of National Public Radio’s afternoon news show “All Things Considered.” She grew up in a South Minneapolis neighborhood. After starting a college education in electrical engineering she switched to journalism, a lifelong interest.
After graduating form the University of Minnesota, she first worked in print journalism at the Los Angeles Times. She also worked in television news at ABC as a correspondent and doing special reports. Eventually she came to NPR as the first female black host for “All Things Considered.”
Michele Norris worked with fellow NPR host Steve Inskeep on a special report during the Obama presidential campaign. In York, Penn., they created a safe environment for local residents of different races and backgrounds to speak about race. They returned to Pennsylvania several times during the campaign to continue the dialogue.
This special report led Norris to start writing a book about what people had left unsaid during their lives regarding race issues. This became especially true of her own family.
There were two major revelations with her family. Both came from an uncle that, as she described, “had opened like a spigot,” spilling out revelations in the excitement of Obama’s election. She sensed that he wished he had not said anything when she started pressing him for details.
The first revelation was that in the ’40s and early ‘50s, her grandmother had a six-state territory in the Midwest where she dressed up as Aunt Jemima and promoted pancake mix.
The character of Aunt Jemima has many negative connotations in the black community going back to the Civil War era. Her mother seemed so ashamed of this she did not want her children to know. Norris, however, had a much different view of this when she learned about it.
For one, it did not jive with her experience of her grandmother. She admired her grandmother for making use of what was available to her at the time to advance herself and to use the role to put forth a positive image of a black person to many who had never seen an African American. Her grandmother went on to become a civic leader and major philanthropist in the Minneapolis area.
The second revelation was much more shocking to Norris and her family.
Shortly after returning from World War II, her father was shot in a scuffle with a white policeman in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
He had returned home with the same expectations as many black veterans. They felt they deserved respect and the right to vote. This was met with major hostility from those in power in the south. Many returning black veterans were beat, maimed, blinded and killed during this period. Norris’ father would have been killed if there had not been a crowd present.
This revelation was shocking enough, but the fact that he never told anyone in his lifetime, including his wife, greatly added to the shock for the family.
Norris spoke about the difficulty of writing “The Grace of Silence.” While this was true when she was writing about others, it became more so when she started writing about herself and her family. As a journalist, she is very good at observing others and reporting about it. When she turned her journalistic eye inward, it was much more difficult.
Much of this sounds like it could be depressing, but Norris spoke about the humor in the different revelations.
She found herself growing up in a very ethnically diverse neighborhood in south Minneapolis. What her parents had never told her and her siblings is that they were the first black family to move into this all-white neighborhood.
The day her parents moved in, every house adjoining their property and the house across the street went on the market. Whenever a real estate agent came to show a house, Michele’s mother would send her older siblings out to play in the yard or she herself would go out and make the family’s presence known. Her mother would wait until the prospective buyers were looking at the kitchen, and she would say to herself, “It’s showtime.”
Norris said she believes that the motivation for her parents and others for not revealing so much of what they did not talk about was to in no way have anything that would inhibit their children’s upward mobility – not to affect their going to college and becoming successful and to have their children believe that they could do and be anything they aspired to.
All of this came though a conversation with former KCRA 3 news anchor Pamela Wu. Wu and Norris had a great rapport. In addition to talking about her book, Norris spoke about her carer, especially at ABC News, and what it is like to work at NPR and on “All Things Considered.”
There were several good questions in the Q and A that followed. One person, though, tried to get Norris to comment on the tea party movement. She was quick to reply that “I am not a pundit, I am a journalist. A journalist’s job is to observe and report.” She did caution on not dismissing the movement.
Overall, while Norris’ talk was quite educational, she was also very entertaining. It is clear that many in the audience also enjoy listening to her every afternoon.
Up next: Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker and author of “Listen to This," "The Rest is Noise.”
"Listen to This is #8 on this week's Entertainment Weekly "The Must List."
Monday, October 18, 2010 Info