Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Family secrets and Michele Norris’s memoir: Not with anger, but with hope

Even family secrets—secrets you could hardly envision—helped shape you. 

Imagine Michele Norris’s shock when she set out to write a book about racism in America and stumbled upon layers of family secrets that, in their keeping, had a profound influence on her childhood, the person she became, and the way she raised her children.

Nationally recognized Norris, journalist and former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke at our local university’s dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy.

She learned from her uncle in 2008—years after her father’s death—that police officers shot her father during the ugly years leading up to the Civil Rights Act. Her father had never told her. 

After her uncle’s surprising disclosure, other relatives told more stories from that era, stories Norris had never heard.

That inspired her to research roles her family played, as a “non-confrontational family,” in America’s painful race-related issues. That investigation led to what she calls her “accidental family memoir,” The Grace of Silence.

She learned that the shooting occurred when her father, Belvin Norris, had just returned to Birmingham, Alabama, from World War II.

“He’d served in the Navy and he returned to a city full of Black veterans who had fought for democracy overseas and were eager to get a taste of it on their home turf. What they faced, instead, was a wall of white resistance. . . . They still faced old rules about segregation and carefully defined roles.”

In that era, too many Blacks were beaten, murdered, and denied voting rights.

Norris’s research revealed that only six days before her father’s shooting, another Black veteran, Isaac Woodard, still in uniform, was beaten and blinded by Batesburg, South Carolina, police.

“The story, subsequent trial, and swift acquittal of the officers caused a national sensation,” writes Norris in an NPR article.

“The Woodard case had a direct impact on President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the military.”

The events of that period led Michele’s father to turn his back on the past, move north, raise his children in a white neighborhood, and keep earlier racial incidents a secret—even from his wife.

Why would he hide it from his children?” asks Michele.

And why did her many relatives, all of whom knew the stories, keep them secret?

The questions haunted her.

“I’m pretty sure . . . that I would have ordered my steps in life differently had I known this,” Michelle says. “I might have been a different adult. I certainly would have been a different child.”

Over time, she came to understand that her father kept the secret “not with anger, but with hope.”

Her parents “wanted their children to soar, so they chose not to weigh down their pockets with personal tales of woe.”

Our parents tell us what they think we need to know,” she continues, “and my father didn’t think I needed to know that. He wanted to make sure that my path forward was uncluttered by his pain, so he chose not to tell me about this. And that explains the title of the book . . . The Grace of Silence. That is the incredibly graceful act.”

“. . . I expect that the ones who came before us—
black and white—
had things they had to keep still about . . .
just like me and Miss Cora.
Things we had to do, whether we liked it or not.
And then we never speak of them again.”
(Augusta Trobaugh,

Do you know your parents’ stories?
Your grandparents’ and great-grandparentsstories?

Probably some of your ancestors,
like Michele’s,
made hard decisions and sacrifices
to ensure that their pasts didn’t hold you back.

Their stories, their choices, and their secrets
have profoundly shaped who you are today.

Michele concludes with something for all of us, especially memoirists, to think about:

“History is made in all kinds of little ways,
a hiring decision, a school bus ride . . . .
I bet that some of the elders
who sit at your family table
might be sitting on stories of their own.

“Those stories, those individual stories
are so easily lost if we are not willing to . . .
listen to those who might be willing to share their legacy
if only someone is willing to take the time to ask.”

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