At first, Michele Norris didn't think her revelatory, heart-piercing book, "The Grace of Silence," would get so personal. The co-host of "All Things Considered" presumed that writing about race would extend the work she had done in 2008 for a multipart National Public Radio series that asked residents of York, Pa., straightforward questions. "Do white Americans underestimate discrimination? Do black people make too much of it? How would the country be different if led by a black man?"
Norris writes, "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."
Norris aimed to chronicle how other people "weren't so much talking about race as talking around it." But her book became a memoir when she "learned about secrets in my own family that had purposely been kept from me," including two big ones. "As a young man, my father had been shot by a white policeman." And her maternal grandmother had worked "as a traveling Aunt Jemima, swooping through small Midwestern towns in a hoop skirt and head scarf to perform pancake-making demonstrations for farm women."
Norris, 49, who was raised in Minneapolis, now lives in Washington with her Baltimore-born husband, Broderick Johnson, and their children. She appears at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Literary Salon of the Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon Place. The following are excerpts from a phone interview she gave Wednesday, during a book tour stop in New York City.
Question: How quickly did you see that this book would have to be about your family?
Answer: There was an unburdening happening in my family with the campaign of Barack Obama. This includes members of my family who were Republicans, who looked at the rise of a black candidate and said, "In my lifetime, I'm seeing something I could not have imagined." This prize they had thought was in the distance, past some mountain range, through some moat of boiling oil, suddenly felt like it was right on top of them — or they were right on top of it. So they started to shed stories.
Originally, I thought of using them as anecdotes. But the more I learned about them, the more I had to know, and the more I knew, the more I had to learn. It just got on top of me.
During the election we were all trying to get our arms around this new term we were kicking around — "post-racial." I was experiencing something different, whether I was reporting from Iowa or North Carolina. People weren't moving past race: They needed to say things about race that they had kept to themselves. I wound up discovering profound secrets about my own family. By instinct, my mother and father had decided to keep them from me.
Q: Was "protecting" you from the truth connected to their determination that their family would "rise above it all" — and rise in America?
A: I benefited from my parents' silence because I wasn't laden with their disappointments. It would have been so easy for them to grouse, especially when you think of how we live now. If Starbucks doesn't get the foam right on a latte, people seethe. But people like my parents pushed the country forward with their decision to put away their own pain. I'm not sure that in the confessional culture of today we could do the same.
Q: F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." Does that apply to your father? He remained patriotic all his life — even after he returned to Birmingham, Ala., a Navy veteran of World War II, and was shot by a white policeman.
A: My parents loved America even when America didn't love them back. They loved America as an ideal even when America as a reality was something that was quite ugly.
Q: How did you balance your father's and grandmother's stories?
A: The story of my father took more of my intellectual and emotional energy, in part because I was writing about someone who was no longer there, and in part because I was pulled into a larger story. I was sadly surprised that I didn't know more about the "rough embrace" that black servicemen received at home during and after World War II. If the book is weighted toward my father's story, that's one reason why. But it's also because he's gone, and I was particularly close to him; when my mom and dad divorced, I lived with him.
The difficulty with my grandmother's story was: My mother hated that her mother had been one of these Aunt Jemimas who traveled in separate regions selling pancake mix for Quaker Oats. She didn't want to talk about it. But that story enabled me to give something back to my mother. I discovered that when Grandma talked to her hometown paper, she described her work as an opportunity to present a favorable impression of black women to people in small towns, unlike the image they would see of the Aunt Jemima character in any magazine at that time. The old Aunt Jemima with the head scarf, not the new one with the pearls, had a slave patois — "Lawsy! Try my temptin' tastalizin pancakes … " — that was completely made up. My grandmother didn't talk that way. She had a beautiful voice, and she was eloquent. She told the hometown paper that she saw herself as "a public representative of my race."
If you go
Michele Norris will appear 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Literary Salon of the Baltimore Book Festival (Mount Vernon Place). For a full schedule, go to baltimorebookfestival.com.
Sunday festival highlights
Noon, literary salon: "Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town"
Noon, Food for Thought Stage: Cooking demonstration from Dogwood restaurant
1 p.m., Festival Stage: The Wonderful World of Book Blogging
1:30 p.m., Food for Thought Stage: Daphne Oz, "The Dorm Room Diet"
4:30 p.m., Festival Stage: Michael Brenner, "A Short History of the Jews"
5:30 p.m., Literary Salon: Holly Robinson Peete, "My Brother Charlie," and Rodney Peete, "Not My Boy!"