Issue November 24, 2010

Book: Public Radio personality delivers unique memoir

Michele Norris presents 'The Grace of Silence'

“In the course of writing this book, I’ve had conversations that made me weep and that made me want to holler from frustration. Many of the people I spoke with said disturbing things but had the courage to reassess themselves through the prism of their conflicting emotions.”

That’s just not something you read in the typical autobiographical ’fess-up. Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” has authored a memoir that pointedly and thoughtfully focuses on how racial issues of identity, dignity and rights have affected her family — particularly her parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The author will appear at Louisville Free Public Library on Wednesday, Dec. 1, for a discussion and signing of “The Grace of Silence.”

The original idea for this book wasn’t a memoir — it was supposed to be a follow-through on interviews with a cross-section of one American city discussing the status of racial issues during the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. But at the same time she listened to people imagining a post-racial America, Norris was deepening her understanding of how contemporary attitudes toward race had been both background and springboard for important incidents in her family history.

For example, one of her grandmothers — valedictorian of her otherwise all-white high school — worked as a traveling personification of Aunt Jemima, making county-fair breakfasts while Madison Avenue retained crude stereotypes about the character in print ads.

More devastating was the revelation that Norris’ father had been shot by police in Birmingham, Ala., in 1946 — apparently on the merest of pretenses and while the man was still in his naval uniform, just after his honorable discharge from wartime service. This book shares much about the late Belvin Norris Jr., who hung onto his “I Voted” stickers throughout his life, maintained a thrifty and disciplined household, and was a “block buster” in Minneapolis in the early ’60s. In many ways, this central figure of the memoir retains a good deal of mystery, even from the perspective of the daughter he raised to be a Peabody Award-winning journalist.

Surviving members of that generation of Norris’ family were hesitant to talk about their knowledge of the shooting, or about other topics that touched on racial issues — and these reinforced the author’s understanding of how race is the subject of a perpetual “hidden conversation” throughout modern American life.

LEO spoke to the author about what the experience was like for her once she decided her family would occupy center stage, and that the book would indeed become a memoir. “There were moments when I was doing the reporting or I was trying to pull stories out of family members or talking about what I’d found, and some of that was painful and difficult,” she says. “But I’ve never felt, ‘Let’s tear this up and go back to where I started.

“But the irony was that I wanted to eavesdrop on the hidden conversation about race in the country, and I wound up writing a very personal and accidental family memoir. And now as I travel around the country for book readings and signings and lectures, I’m back where I started. Because in the process of talking about the book with large audiences, I’m swimming in this conversation about race and identity and family. So I wound up where I originally wanted to be — I just took a different kind of journey. Instead of writing about that, I’m experiencing it. And we are capturing much of it on my website (www.michele-norris.com).”

If you’re interested in attending the signing, note that the free tickets are all gone, but limited standby seating may be available at the start of the program.

Author Michele Norris
Wednesday, Dec. 1
Louisville Free Public Library
301 York St. • 574-1644
Free; 7 p.m.