Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Grace of Silence and more

Right now it just so happens that I'm in a biography phase. It likely began when I chose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for my January book discussion and then it just took off from there. Condi Rice's book is sitting here on my desk - not sure who'll get to it first, Don or me - and Pat Conroy's My Reading Life is on my wait list. Oh, and let's please not forget the new Nora Ephron book I Remember Nothing which will please me tremendously if it's half as funny as I Feel Bad About my Neck!

The Grace of Silence is a beautiful, enticing title. I'd have picked up the book even if Don and I weren't followers of Michelle Norris on NPR. Her voice is calm, seductive, yet authoritative on the radio and I hoped for the same from her reading of her own book since I'm listening in my car. When Ms. Norris is narrating the story of her youth and her family she does a beautiful job, but when she tries to differentiate her voice from those of the folks she's interviewed or remembers, she lapses into a disconcertingly shrill, almost angry dialect, that I find a tad distracting.
Of course, there's no question that she has a right to be angry, as anyone would who tells the story of race relations in the United States in the twentieth century. And really, that's what this book is about. Ostensibly a story of her forebears, in particular her dad, Belvin Norris Jr., with whom she was especially close, The Grace of Silence, to me, is more a history of the civil rights movement as seen through the prism of family.

The irony is that Ms. Norris, who spearheaded "a conversation about race" for All Things Considered, her NPR show, found that her own family had maintained deliberate silence about racial hurts and secrets from their past. One thing that she examines closely is the fact that her grandmother, her mom's mother, had spent a good deal of her life earning money, raising her family, by working as a traveling Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats.
The Aunt Jemima image has undergone many interations over the past 70 or 80 years, but Norris delves deeply into the negative feelings that blacks today have for this painful image and the embarassment that her mother felt when admitting what HER mother had done, while still admiring that her mom, Ione, had such pride in her work at that time. It's a very complicated set of emotions that Ms. Norris is dealing with, thus the history lesson is a necessary addition for most readers.

Many chapters deal with World War II and the effect that it had on black veterans returning from the war expecting to be treated with the respect they deserved and realizing that, though they were fighting for freedom overseas, they still were not going to enjoy freedom at home. This tied in with what I had already discovered at the Tuskeegee Airman's Memorial and which I wrote about in an earlier post about my latest trip from Baltimore to Ft. Myers.

Norris's dad Belvin joined the U.S. Navy as one of the brightest graduates of his high school class in Birmingham, yet the highest rung he could aspire to in the service was that of a cook. Yet shortly after he was honorably discharged from the Navy, full of pride at having served his country, he and his brothers were involved in an altercation on their way to a dance in which he was shot in the leg by a white policeman.

This discovery shocked Ms. Norris to her core. She explains in interviews that she not only had no idea that this had happened to her dad as a young man, but that she really had no idea what young black men had to live through in the '40's and '50's. This seems almost impossible to believe to somone my age. It seems that I've always been aware of the unfair and unlawful disparity between blacks and whites in America. However, I was blessed - didn't think I'd ever say this - with a family that was rarely silent!

   Delving into her family's history resulted in an education into the dark past of our country's history of American apartheid. Better able to understand her dad's obsessive insistence on appearances; the house and yard always perfect, the kids dressed to the nines when they went off to church, the report cards that had to be perfect, Norris comes to a new appreciation of the grace of her father's silence, his reluctance to color his children's thoughts about white/black relations because of his own frighful experience. She describes a man of honor, pride, responsibility, and love. In short, he could have been my dad or many others I know. The $64,000 question is, why did it have to be so hard for him and so much easier for us?

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