When I saw Aarti's review of this over on Book Lust, I immediately added it to my library queue. Michele Norris is a journalist, for many years the host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" show, to which I very occasionally listen while stuck in traffic. (I don't usually have the radio on while driving - I find silence more calming in Houston traffic.) Her memoir, published in 2010, grew out of a project for NPR. As she explains in the Introduction,
I began this project in 2009 because I became convinced that an unprecedented, hidden, and robust conversation about race was taking place across the country in the wake of Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign and his ascension to office. Americans seemed to be spending more time talking about race, but even so I had the feeling that something was always left unsaid. Filters would automatically engage, preventing us from saying things that might cause us embarrassment or get us into trouble or, even worse, reveal us for who we really are. We weren't so much talking about race as talking around it.Reading this four years later, in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, I want to believe that there is a "robust conversation about race" going on right now. But the comments I read on news and opinion pieces make me think there are too many people trying to drown out this desperately-needed talk, saying there is no problem, stop talking about these things and they will go away. Which, not coincidentally, is what a lot of northerners thought about slavery before the Civil War. All they wanted was for the abolitionists to shut up and go away. "Not our problem," they said. We know how that worked out.
Michele Norris learned in the course of her project that "The discussion about race within my own family was not completely honest."
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. I originally wanted to write about how "other people" talked about race, but that presumption was swiftly disabused when I learned about secrets in my own family that had purposely been kept from me.The first, and more devastating for her, is that "as a young man, my father had been shot by a white policeman" (in one of his legs). She learned of this more than twenty years after her father's death, when her uncle mentioned it casually in conversation. It happened in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, just after her father, Belvin Norris, was discharged from the Navy in 1946. Her uncle, her father's youngest brother, is an elderly man, and unclear on all the details. Her mother had heard this only second-hand, in passing. Ms. Norris began to investigate the circumstances, traveling to Birmingham to pore over arrest reports, trying to piece the story together. In the process, she learned more about her father's service in the segregated Navy, where African Americans were relegated to menial jobs as cooks and stewards. And she learned for the first time of the wave of violent attacks on African American veterans returning home. I don't remember ever learning about this myself, and the violence of the attacks horrified me. I knew that President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, but I did not know that he was particularly moved to action by the brutal beating of Issac Woodward in February of 1946. The day after he was discharged from the Army, and still in uniform, Woodward got into an altercation with the driver of the Greyhound bus he was riding home to his family. When the bus stopped in a small South Carolina town, two policemen dragged him off and beat him so badly that he was left blind. The attack on Ms. Norris's father may have been part of this larger attempt to intimidate and control African American veterans, protesting Jim Crow discrimination in the United States after fighting for freedom abroad.
The second secret Ms. Norris learned, from another uncle, was about her maternal grandmother, Ione Hopson Brown:
Grandma Ione had worked for Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima. For years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she dressed up in a hoop skirt and apron, with a bandanna on her head, and traveled to small midwestern towns touting Aunt Jemima pancake mix to farmwives.Her daughter Betty Brown Norris did not want to talk about her mother's work with her own daughter. "She hated the story as much as she hated my badgering her for details." Talking about it helped her work through "the shame she felt about Grandma Ione's work . . ." Michele Norris feels no shame, but she couldn't picture her stylish, polished grandmother in that role. Betty Norris also told her daughter, "If you write about this, you better get it right and make sure people know not just what that symbol means right now but what it used to mean when they first rolled out all that mammy mess." Ms. Norris does just that, exploring the development of the "Aunt Jemima" character and the various ad campaigns over the years, as well as the role of the "Mammy" figure in American culture, in both the black and white experience. I have read something of this, the quandary Quaker Oats faces with a best-selling brand based on a racist portrayal of a woman slave. Presumably the makers of Mrs. Butterworth face the same issue, though the brand is I think less iconic. A quick Google search shows that her bottle-shaped figure has evolved like the image of Aunt Jemima has.
Framing her investigation of these two secrets, Ms. Norris recounts her experiences growing up in Minneapolis. She spent summers in Alabama with her father's family, where she experienced Jim Crow segregation first-hand. But she and her family also faced racism in Minnesota and in other parts of the United States. When her parents bought a house on an all-white block, panicked neighbors rushed to sell. Others, further down the block, stayed put, and slowly the neighborhood became integrated. Her parents held Ms. Norris and her older sisters to very high standards, as representing the African American community. They were told,
"Keep your eye on the prize." Stay strong. Keep committed. Focus on the fight for justice and equality . . . Don't let up. Don't look back. Don't slow down. Ignore the slights and the slurs - and the laws - that try to keep you from achieving your goals.In the end, she suggests, that's what lay behind her grandparents' and parents' silence: "So as not to allow us to be hindered by acrimony and rancor in our struggle to rise above 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and achieve self-fulfillment no matter what." Ms. Norris has a different take:
Our continuing national conversation on race will no doubt proceed by fits and starts and occasional spats and squabbles. 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.I agree. But it has to be a conversation. What I hear and read from a lot of white Americans right now is monologue, or else the equivalent of a child sticking fingers in her ears and closing her eyes. (I am going to stop reading the comments sections, I really am, before I lose all hope.) I'm also going to suggest this book to all three of my book groups, and see what kind of conversation develops.