Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris

The Grace of Silence is a moving family memoir about one woman’s journey as she digs into her family’s past and discovers much more than she had ever imagined.  After Barack Obama’s historic win of the presidential nomination in 2008, NPR correspondent Michele Norris decided to take a deeper look into her African American family to see how they ended up where they are today.  Once Norris started looking into it, she found her family had many secrets in their past and that maybe the best thing they had done to move the family forward was to have a “grace of silence.”

This book was chosen as the fall Diversity Book Club choice for this fall at the college I work at.  I vastly enjoyed reading it and talking about it at our book club meetings.  I’m hoping the club continues this spring with another book.  I was only able to make two out of the four book club meetings, but it was great thought provoking discussion.   This was a great book – and definitely in the top books I read in 2016.

This book had MANY great quotes and points of discussion.  Here are just a few:

“After spending a lifetime trying to be a model minority – one of the few black men in his neighborhood, at his workplace, or on his daughters’ school committees – my father now sat facing the condemnation of two blond scolds.  They had apparently concluded that he was an early morning lush instead of a grey-haired man fighting a losing battle with a devastating disease. 

Here is the conundrum of racism.  You know it’s there, but you can’t prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation.  Those pink satin ladies were strangers to me, so I have no idea if they would have been as quick to judge a gray-haired white man with impaired speech.  However, I do know this:  The fact that they were white women added mightily to my father’s humiliation.”

This passage generated a lot of conversation.  What is a model minority?  I had never heard the term before, but we discussed how a minority, especially living in a community where they are not with other minorities, will feel the need to overcompensate and show that they are a great person and don’t fall into your preconceived notions of race.  In this situation, Norris was helping her father who was very sick with cancer get onto an airplane and he wasn’t doing well.  She wondered how race colored the reactions of the white ladies in the airport.  Along these lines was another great quote:

“Even then I knew the answer.  Blacks often feel the dispiriting burden of being perceived willy-nilly as representing an entire race.  The idea made my head hurt and it still does if I dwell on it too much.  To this day I have to tamp down anxiety when I step on a stage or into a studio.  The notion that I can lift up others through stellar work or stall their progress by falling short has been drummed into me since childhood.”

Michele Norris discovered her grandmother was an “Aunt Jemima.”  She dressed up as the maple syrup and pancake character Aunt Jemima and traveled around the Midwest making and selling pancakes.  While some family members were proud of her as she was a “star” others were ashamed as she was representing a caricuture.  I love this quote.  “I respect Grandma Ione for having taken a job, despite being haunted by stigma, and having used it to lift her family up.  We judge Aunt Jemima and ourselves by what we see reflected in the mirror in her history.”  Norris does a great job of explaining that history in this chapter.

“Mom and Dad were obsessive about looking clean and stylish and sophisticated because they lived in a society that perpetuated the notion that black people, in the main, were none of these things.”  Her parents were “blockbusters” and were the first black family to move into a white neighborhood in Minneapolis.  They overcompensated by always appearing stylish when outside and being the first family to have their snow shoveled.

Norris’s father was originally from Birmingham Alabama.  Through her research, she discovered he had a past that was very much unlike the rather she knew growing up, something he had never discussed.  He had been shot by a police officer just after the end of WWII.

“In the mid-1940’s, Birmingham, Alabama, was a place where even the best-dressed black man might have too step off the sidewalk if a white person – regardless of class – was heading in his direction.”

Norris discovered that prejudice ran both ways in Birmingham in the current climate.  She talked to a relative who said, “I don’t talk about this, and I barely know why I’m talking about this now.  I am not a prejudiced person, but I do not trust American white people.  When you have seen people treated that way and hurt and the shooting and the bombing and the constant disrespect, it bothers me.  It really bothers me to this day.”  These thoughts actually went through the family and even the grandkids “hate white people.”  Norris then says “Many people of color wanted to move the country forward, wanted to convince white people, by moral suasion, no longer to hate and subjugate black American, while the themselves secretly clung to festering, old grudges, the better to foster communal solidarity.”

I thought this entire passage was very relevant for today:

“Race is often seen as a black issue in America.  When any institution puts together a panel or symposium or committee on race or diversity, you can be sure that it will focus on reaching out to, hearing from, or being more inclusive of people of color.  Reluctance among whites to talk about race and discomfort when doing so are usually seen as the chief obstacles to progress.”  Less explored is the legacy of distrust black parents pass on to their children.  Many of us are advised by our elders to beware of whites.  Race is the black boy who has not been told to be on guard in all encounters with white police officers.  This advice comes in many forms.  Sometimes it’s subtle.  Sometimes severe.  Sometimes it’s subtle.”

A section of the book tells the horrific story of the blinding of an African American veteran after his return from WWII.  He suffered from the same problem that Norris’s father did, returning after fighting a war to discover that extreme prejudice that still existed in our country.  As Orson Welles stated, “What does it cost to be a Negro?  In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his eyes.”

“Eric Holdor, soon to become the attorney general, told me that all day he harbored thoughts of his father, an immigrant from Barbados who fiercely loved the United States and fought in the war but who, on his way home, had to stand for hours on end during his train ride, while German prisoners of war, all white men, sat comfortably in cushioned seats.”

The Grace of Silence in an important book that takes a very thoughtful look into life as an African American in the United States today and the history behind it.  Many, many topics we discussed that happened in the 1940’s we realized are not too different sadly than current days.  I feel like I can’t adequately describe this book, but it was one of the best books I read in 2016 and is a book that everyone in the United States should read.

Book Source:  Purchased from Amazon.com

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