The Accidental Memoirist

<< Back

The Accidental Memoirist

 By William Swanson
Winter 2011

Michelle Norris 
Photograph by Mark Luinenburg
A s memoirs go, The Grace of Silence, by Michele Norris (B.A. ’05), co-host of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, is notably thin on self-consideration. There is little in the way of conventional autobiography, and not much of her firsthand experience growing up African American on the mostly white south side of Minneapolis during the 1960s and ’70s. She reveals few details about her days at Washburn High School and the University of Minnesota and scarcely touches on her journalistic postings at the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, ABC News, and NPR. Her husband and their two preteen daughters are mentioned only in passing. And though Norris writes vividly about the cruelty and indignities visited upon her parents and grandparents, there is only a trace of the anger that her family’s experience—hers by extension—would justify. Anyone who’s read Richard Wright or James Baldwin (never mind Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X) will find Norris disarmingly measured and reasonable. Her tone is very NPR, come to think of it—though her composure derives, readers quickly discover, from a more intimate source.

Norris calls her book an “accidental memoir.” Inspired by the award-winning series of conversations she and NPR’s Steve Inskeep conducted in 2008 with a diverse group of citizens in York, Pennsylvania, it was supposed to be a collection of essays on race—informed, insightful, but not overtly personal. At that time, Americans—either energized or alarmed by Barack Obama’s run for the presidency—seemed to be talking a lot about race, yet Norris “had the feeling that something was left unsaid,” she says. Something indeed, and not just by the general public. Unbeknownst to Norris and to most of her extended family, her father, when he was a 20-year-old World War II vet, had been shot and wounded in a scuffle with white police in Birmingham, Alabama, his hometown. What’s more, her maternal grandmother had worked, as a middle-aged woman, as a costumed Aunt Jemima demonstrating Quaker Oats pancake mix for midwestern housewives; the well-known product icon was, of course, based on a slavery-era stereotype that many African Americans found offensive. Norris’s father had died with his secret, and her mother talked about her mother’s experience reluctantly, only after persistent questioning. Norris, who had by this time in her career uncovered her share of inconvenient truths, was floored by the revelations.

“Well, the truth can set you free,” Norris writes in her book’s introduction, “but it can also be profoundly disconcerting.”

“She was discombobulated,” says her close friend and Washington, D.C., neighbor Gwen Ifill, herself a celebrated broadcast newswoman (PBS’s News‑Hour and Washington Week) and first-time author (2009’s The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama). “It was suddenly a very different book from what she’d set out to write. But she quickly decided that this was the book she had to write—and a better, more important book as well.” Instead of sharing other people’s family stories, Norris decided she had to focus on her own. “That would be painful and unsettling,” Ifill adds, “going to her own family and asking difficult questions.”

1988: Cancer, and a Conundrum
When my dad tried to lean toward me to ask a question, his words sputtered forth like bricks tumbling from a shelf. The satin dolls found it hard to mind their own business. They stared and pointed every time Dad attempted to speak. They didn’t try to hide their disparagement, one of them harrumphing loud enough for anyone to hear, “Goodness sakes, it’s not even noon yet!”

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 the two blond scolds. They had apparently concluded that he was an early morning lush instead of a gray-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. I knew my father felt the sting of their judgment. I knew it because he kept pushing up his cardigan sleeve and futzing with his wrist, as if he’d left home without his Timex. But it was not the wrist on which he wore his windup watch. It was the wrist where the plastic bracelet had been affixed at the hospital. His awkward gestures were a silent plea to the satin dolls to notice the hospital bracelet. My heart breaks every time I think of the look on his face that day.

The jut of his chin showed indignation, but the sag of his shoulders and the crease in his brow conveyed something different. Something hovering between anger and shame. There was also, however, a hint of grace. I see that now that I have come to understand my father better, as a man who was always in tight control of his emotions. I believe now that he was trying not just to salvage his dignity but also to absolve the two women from dishonor. A less controlled, more impulsive man might have responded by giving those women the finger to shut them up. My father drew strength from reaching past anger.
Excerpted from The Grace of Silence, copyright © 2010 by Michele Norris.
All excerpts used by permission of Pantheon Books.
The slight (185-page), bittersweet, wholly engrossing book that emerged could serve as a pocket companion to The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s sweeping account of the African American south-to-north migration of the 20th century, also published this fall. The Grace of Silence, however, may be more accurately described as a portrait of Norris’s parents, their sprawling families, and their tumultuous times than as a memoir, accidental or not. Betty Norris (who, at 79, still lives in the Twin Cities) is a tough, feisty, fourth-generation Minnesotan descended from the only black family in early 20th century Douglas County. Belvin Norris Jr., who succumbed to a brain tumor in 1988, was a fastidious, positive-thinking, self-effacing but controlling man who, after migrating north from Birmingham, ended up in Minneapolis with the help of a coin toss. According to his daughter, he desired above all to be “the Average Joe of the American dream.” Betty and Belvin were postal workers who, mainly because they wanted to live near water and with access to good schools, became the first black homeowners on their block of Oakland Avenue just off Minnehaha Creek; they remained close and supportive even after divorcing when Michele was in junior high. (Betty had two older daughters by a previous marriage.)

Beginning as a small child—a “little girl in lace socks and patent leather shoes”—Norris spent part of every summer with her father’s kin, many of whom lived in a poor but tightly knit Birmingham neighborhood called Ensley. Though formal segregation was on its last legs in the South, her grandparents drilled Michele in the basics: Don’t look white folks in the eye. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t make a fuss when you aren’t allowed to use the dressing rooms downtown. The rules were backed by law and tradition, and “everybody knew their place.” Visiting other relatives in Chicago provided continuing education in the stark realities of the time. “I realized that my uncles lived in all-black neighborhoods,” Norris explains during a Twin Cities stop midway through a 30-city promotional tour in October. “My cousins did not socialize freely or frequently with white people because of where they lived. When I went to visit, there weren’t white kids in the neighborhood and there weren’t mixed families.”

 
Michele Norris says this is her favorite
picture of her father, Belvin Norris Jr.
In Minneapolis, by the 1970s, Norris says, her neighborhood was an integrated and mostly accommodating place—a “happy little rainbow community,” she calls it—where the protocols were fewer and more subtle. Just as her parents socialized with black and white friends, Michele had playmates of various colors, including the children of several mixed marriages, and her parents’ guidelines, at least on the surface, had more to do with personal appearance, resourcefulness, and probity than with matters of race.

“Nobody sat me down and said people [weren’t] going to like me because of the color of my skin,” she says. Only as she grew wise in the ways of the world did she begin to appreciate the reason her parents kept telling her, “You’re going to have to work four times as hard to get half as far,” Norris recalls. “I look at an old photo of us kids standing out there on our corner lot—5, 6, 7 years old, all smiles and missing teeth—and realize I took things for granted at the time and didn’t realize what my parents did to make it happen, to crack the ice.”

At 49, Norris is a stylish woman with dark eyes and light skin. Radio may be her natural medium—no one on the air today speaks with silkier precision—but it’s not difficult to imagine her on television. (She is in fact a frequent guest on Meet the Press and other programs.) She laughs easily, tears up when reminiscing about her father, and, when having to answer questions rather than ask them, chooses her words with care. “I’m not going to say I didn’t experience any problems” growing up black in Minnesota, she says, “because that wouldn’t be true. Integration came easy to our neighborhood, but in the 1970s there were differences, and they became more acute when we started dating. Things got more complicated in junior high and high school. Even though we’d all played together as kids, now we felt we had to choose. White kids would sit together and black kids would sit together. I was a cheerleader—I think there were two black cheerleaders at Washburn at the time—and so I straddled both worlds. Sometimes that was difficult.”

1961: A House Near Minnehaha Creek
The Twin Cities, especially Minneapolis, were known for tolerance. Even so, blacks, Latinos, American Indians, and, later, Hmong and Vietnamese refugees would cluster in a few ethnic fiefdoms. My parents wanted to be on the far South Side, where the best schools were located, and they wanted to be close to water. Finding a house wasn’t going to be easy for a brown-skinned couple. Realtors would “forget” appointments or make hasty exits when my parents walked into their offices. So my parents decided to sidestep real estate agents and focus on other ways to buy a house, like reading newspaper obituaries. After all, a family in mourning might feel pressured to entertain a strong offer, regardless of the race of the bidder, as long as the money on the table was green. Ghoulish, but Belvin and Betty did what they had to do, and eventually things worked out for them.

In January 1961, they found a three-bedroom, two-story, Tudor Revival on a corner lot with a large yard, an open kitchen, a large limestone fireplace, and a finished basement with knotty pine paneling. . . . [It was] the largest house on the 4800 block of Oakland Avenue. My mother’s sister advised her against buying so big a house. “It will just make it harder,” Aunt Doris said. “Why give them another reason to judge you? They’re going to say you think too highly of yourself. You know how they are.” Mom wasn’t having it. “I do think highly of myself, and I don’t care if they know that. In fact, I prefer if they know that.” 
She says she also listened to the stories her father and his brothers would tell about their days at A.H. Parker, the legendary, high-achieving black high school in segregated Birmingham, and contrasted those accounts with her experience in Minneapolis. “My dad and my uncles would talk about all the black students who excelled at Parker and were members of the honor society and the valedictorians and ran things,” she says. At Washburn—where African Americans were a small minority at the time—that wasn’t always the case. “Black students did well there, especially in sports, but in the social hierarchy there were divisions, and you didn’t necessarily see black students in the top positions.”

 
 A teenaged Belvin Norris at Camp
Robert Smalls, the naval station at
Great Lakes, Illinois. During WWII,
the camp was the site of a separate
program for "Negro" recruits.

Longtime acquaintances, such as Twin Cities communications executive Kathleen Crandall (B.A. ’89), remember the teenaged Norris as smart, happy, involved, and popular. None of which would be enough, Norris says, to dull the sting of a passerby calling her “nigger” in front of a mixed group of her friends (Norris calls it “the N-word”) or ward off the hurt when the nervous parents of a white boy she was dating forced him to end the relationship. In such cases, Michele inevitably received from her parents the terse response that she’d learned to expect. “Ignore it—that kid’s a fool,” her father would say of the epithet and its source. Of the bigoted parents and the boy on the other side of the social color line: “They have no idea what they’re missing. One day he’ll regret it.”

After high school, Norris enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she could pay Minnesota tuition rates while enjoying out-of-state independence. Her parents encouraged her to study electrical engineering because, she says, “engineers build things.” But, for a number of reasons, including her desire to study journalism in the Twin Cities, with its two large media markets, she transferred to Minnesota.

“I’ve always loved to read and always loved to tell stories,” she says, explaining her interest in communications. Norris remembers the U of M as a “welcoming place” where she “didn’t obsess” about race. “I was more about the business of being cool at that point in my life,” she laughs. “I worked at the [Minnesota] Daily and lived off campus—I had a couple of different apartments in Uptown.” She hung out with her Daily colleagues and roomed for a while with Lizz Winstead, who’d go on to a successful career as standup comic and writer. At one point, in addition to working on the campus paper, she waited tables at Faegre’s, the erstwhile Warehouse District bistro, and pulled overnight duty on weekends monitoring the police scanner at WCCO-TV. (In the spring of 1985, she left school a few credits shy of a degree to take a job with the Los Angeles Times, then returned for a B.A. exactly 20 years later—when she also delivered the College of Liberal Arts commencement address.)

Birmingham: Who Do You Think You Are?
During my summer stays in Birmingham, my grandfather usually carried me into town with him on trips to Bruno’s, the big grocery store. I would have to get dressed up for the day in a starchy little pinafore and patent leather shoes. And since this was before the days of car seats, I would sit next to him in the massive front seat, the two of us in what most people would call Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Some days, when we parked the car and walked into the business district, my grandfather would be approached by men in work uniforms. They lived in a section across a creek that I later learned was home to Irish and Italian families. They always looked rumpled. They had dirt on their faces, and their hair always seemed wet. They called my grandfather “boy” and “nigrah,” which was supposed to be slightly less offensive and confrontational than nigger. Slightly.

Sometimes they’d ask him who he “thought” he was, driving a big car and dressing like a preacher. They would follow us, barking and sneering and spitting on the sidewalk. They would step in front of us now and then to block our way. My grandfather said little. He knew the men by name. I remember that he would sometimes tell them to give his regards to their parents or ask after someone he used to work with at the mills. This would often get the men to back off, allowing us to continue on our way—a man with hands the size of mitts holding on to an overdressed child.

I now wonder whether the little girl in the lace socks and patent leather shoes was invited along for the ride to provide Grandpa with a measure of protection from Birmingham hostility. I can’t imagine putting my own kids into a similar situation, dressing them up as armor for their grandparents. I ran this by Mom, wanting her to say, “You’re crazy” or “Your imagination is running away with you.” But instead she allowed, “We lived in different times. People did what they had to do.”
“My parents helped—they were always willing to help if you helped yourself—but I needed the money,” she says. Meantime, “the fact that most of those places were peopled mainly by whites just wasn’t a big deal. All along, I had African American friends, and being in places and positions where I was the distinct minority didn’t make me feel unusual or uncomfortable.”

At the time, Norris had no clue about the events that lay behind her parents’ steadfast equanimity. “Our parents armed us with what they thought we needed: strength, courage, and a touch of indignation. But just a touch,” she says in her book. “I was shaped by the advice and admonitions that rained down on me. I’ve always known that. What I did not know until I began this project is that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents’ silence.” Elsewhere she writes: “I was raised by a model minority to be a model minority, and to achieve that status, certain impulses had to be suppressed. Years later, I understand both the reason and its consequence.”

 
 Michele Norris's
8th-grade school photo


Norris’s investigation of those hidden events and her gradual understanding and appreciation of her parents’ determination not to talk about them provide the narrative drive of her memoir. She digs through old newspapers, police reports, and court dockets and tracks down the few living witnesses she can find from the day. She sheds a bright light on an outrage often overlooked by historians of the great struggle for civil rights: the shameful and frequently brutal treatment of African American servicemen upon their return home after World War II.

On one of several trips to modern Birmingham, she acknowledges both the dramatic gains made by the city’s black citizens following the demise of Jim Crow and the deterioration of the old Ensley community. The cosseting neighborhood Norris remembers from her girlhood visits is now a grim, dangerous spot. “You just can’t roll up in this neighborhood for sightseeing,” a teenager on a bicycle remarks when she nods toward the empty lot where her grandparents’ bungalow once stood. “You likely to get robbed or even killed. Best you get yourself back to where you came from.”

“It breaks my heart,” says Norris back in Minneapolis, when reminded of the incident.

But Norris, like her father, is an optimist. She believes in social progress and the power of shared truths. She is too smart and too well-traveled to be a Pollyanna, and she’s too honest a storyteller to underplay the commonalities linking her father’s working-class origins and the poorly paid, generally disrespected city police who tried to keep restive young blacks “in their place.” She recounts a candid conversation with a long-retired Birmingham cop named, in one of those ironies only life can script, Aubrey Justice—a conversation that would have been unthinkable in 1965, taking place in a neighborhood that 40 years ago would have been off-limits to a black person, even a big-shot national news anchor driving a fancy rented car.

“Only later, upon reflection on his life and our conversation, did it occur to me that I’d been sitting knee to knee with an older white man who was in odd ways a mirror image of the black man who’d raised me,” she writes. “At first I pushed the thought away. For myriad reasons, I didn’t want to go there. Segregation was informed by, and sought to keep alive, the illusion that white and black people are fundamentally different, one superior to the other. But the illusion could sometimes work both ways, for many blacks have refused to see anything of themselves in their oppressors, the race responsible for their denigration.” In any event, and for a number of reasons, the similarities between Officer Justice and Belvin Norris “kept creeping up on me.”

 
 Michele Norris's maternal grandmother, Ione Brown, shown in the costume she wore
in her job as a traveling "Aunt Jemima" for the Quaker Oats Company. The photo
appeared in a northern Minnesota newspaper, the Park Region Echo, in 1950.
The universal dynamic of The Grace of Silence is at least as generational as it is racial, and the paradox of the daughter of a determinedly private man becoming a broadcast journalist who takes his life story public is rich in its own right. Then again, there’s nothing quite that simple about Norris’s tale. Betty and Belvin, for instance, were lifelong news junkies—voracious readers and avid public-radio listeners; religiously, every Sunday, her father would drive downtown to Shinders to pick up his copy of the New York Times. Norris had made it to the Chicago Tribune before Belvin died, and “he was very proud,” she says. “If he had lived long enough to hear me on NPR, he would have really strutted.” She believes he would eventually have been willing to share his secret.

Beyond Silence: A Way Forward
All the talk of a postracial America betrays an all too glib eagerness to put in remission a four-hundred-year-old cancerous social disease. We can’t let it rest until we attend to its symptoms in ourselves and others. Jimmy Carter talking about white voter discomfiture with Barack Obama’s race; Eric Holder suggesting that Americans are more often than not cowards in their refusal to address the subject candidly; Harry Reid surmising that Obama’s advantages are his skin tone and lack of a “Negro” dialect: all have been subject to immediate and loud public censure by people more interested in excoriating them for daring to bring up the subject of race than willing to examine whether their statements bore hard truths.

So often the mere mention of the word race can make some people apoplectic or pious or frozen by anxiety, only to beat a hasty retreat to their comfort zone: grim taciturnity. Our collective discomfort with the issue is why discussions about race can so easily become so explosive. But our sensitivity renders us vulnerable to those who would exploit race for their own agenda, if not their ratings. Public discussions of race are very often a blood sport. Private conversations—with no audience, fewer sanctions, and, often, fewer filters—can be altogether another matter. They are no less painful—the hurt can be profound—but the results are almost always far more productive.
“He was 62 when he passed—I was in my mid-twenties,” Norris explains during her recent visit. “Your twenties [are] a period of self-absorption, and maybe I just didn’t make a place for him to tell me a lot of things. If he had lived long enough to experience what we’ve experienced in the past few years, including the election of an African American president, I have to believe we would have had different conversations and that he would have told me more about his life in Birmingham.” Her words suggest the regret of both a daughter who sorely misses her father and an enterprising journalist who missed a crucial source.

 
 Michele Norris's mother, Betty,
 before a high-school dance,
wearing a handmade gown

When asked if the audience for her book might look a lot like her audience on All Things Considered—which is, among other salient characteristics, predominantly white—she winces and replies, “I hope my audience is big and broad.” She says that people of all colors know so little about their family histories that the tale of a quest for long-buried information would seem to be of widespread interest. At the same time, she believes the book will hold particular appeal for African Americans, especially older African Americans, whose determination to keep their eyes on the prize as they’ve struggled for their share of the American dream has kept them quiet, at least so far as their most painful memories are concerned.

“I believe we want our stories told,” she says. “That at some point before we die we want to unburden ourselves. Like, ‘Before I leave this earth, I want you to know who I am.’ ”

Norris is committed to expand and extend the process begun with the York Project and The Grace of Silence. Her website, michele-norris.com, is already collecting heartfelt, often difficult-to-talk-about stories from people of diverse backgrounds and experience across the country.

“Our continuing national conversation on race will no doubt proceed by fits and starts and occasional spats and squabbles,” she writes near the end of her book. “But all of us should be willing to remain at the table even when things get uncomfortable. We need to be fearless while unburdening ourselves, even as we respect the same effort in others. There is often grace in silence. But there is always power in understanding.”


William Swanson (B.A. ’68) is a Minneapolis journalist and author. His account of the 1970 assassination of St. Paul police officer James Sackett and its aftermath will be published by Borealis Books in 2012.

©2014 by the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.
The University of Minnesota Alumni Association is an equal opportunity educator and employer.