Book: The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Publication date: 2010
Summary: Michele Norris set out to take a reporter’s look at the “unprecedented, hidden, and robust conversation about race taking place across the country in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign and his ascension to office.” (p. xi) In the process, she discovered secrets in her own family that took the project in a sharply different direction, from journalism to memoir, The Grace of Silence. Why had her father never told her that he had been shot by a police officer in the weeks after his discharge from the army after World War II? How come no one in her mother’s family talked about her grandmother’s job selling maple syrup for Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima? How did their silence and the silence of others about race in the 1940s and 50s in America effect those of us living in America today?
Thoughts: The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris was the July selection for the Diversity Book Club (thanking Rebecca who gave me that name in the comments so that it requires less explanation when I mention it) that I wrote about a few weeks ago. We talked a lot about why people keep secrets and it led to an interesting realization by the end. We concluded that black people who suffered from overt racism and white people who committed it keep silent about those incidents for the same reasons: from shame and to protect the innocence, as much as possible, of the next generations.
As Michele Norris has been traveling around the country talking about her book The Grace of Silence, she’s been playing the Race Card — a postcard on which she asks people to send her a 6-word sentence about race. She found that many people are willing to be open about race when they are asked to do it in that structure. Many of these race cards are displayed at RACE Card – Michele Norris, with a form at the bottom and an invitation for more. Here’s the one I’m going to submit:
Being white renders race thoughts optional.
That’s not an original idea, being one of the tenets of white privilege, but it took me a few days to make it comprehensible in six words.
It’s one of those invisible privileges that takes some practice to see, helped along by the rare opportunity to learn the pervasiveness of race thoughts in people of color. I saw a video once with an elderly black man who says he thinks about race “every damn day.” A black woman I sat next to at one of our first Diversity Book Club meetings answered the question “What would change in your life if you woke up white tomorrow morning?” with “relief from stress.” I’m pretty sure she thought about race every damn day, too. And it’s not just African Americans. I’ve learned recently that brown-skinned women of all backgrounds are often assumed to be nannies, even when the children in question are their daughters and sons or their nieces and nephews by blood or by choice. I don’t know if they think about race every damn day, but it sure puts a damper on days that were intended to be pleasant outings with children. (Thanks for this insight goes to Kim at I’m Not the Nanny and my friend, Yesha)
By contrast, I lived the first 46 years of my life with only an occasional thought about race. Even now, when diversity has become my major focus for being active in my community, I am constantly aware that it’s a choice. I am especially aware of the choice on the days that I choose to stay home from events because I just don’t want to deal with it that day. That’s privilege!
With that context, I read about Michele Norris’s interviews with the living relations of a police chief, Lynwood Shull, whose brutal beating of a black veteran in uniform impacted President Truman’s decision to integrate the military. On page 129, she noted that we are losing the stories of the civil rights era, both those fighting for and those fighting against.
Lynwood Shull is dead, but many of the people who threw bricks at college students, or spat at ballplayers, or yelled awful things at schoolchildren are still alive. And if America is as determined as it appears to be to have a frank conversation about race, these very people, who’ve been denounced and derided–demonized–must have a seat at the table, so that they can be a part of the dialogue. For often discussions about race are one-sided, driven only by those who have experienced directly or through family ties the burden of rampant and vicious discrimination. The “success despite oppression” trope is quite common in politics, business, and the media. Less common–more muted, perhaps–are the viewpoints of people who enforced, enjoyed, or evolved past presumed white privilege. Their stories and sentiments, too, must be considered for greater understanding, as all of us try to explore and explain a country that has moved from the legislated marginalization of people of color to their predicted attainment of majority status in less than forty years.
Thinking about how optional it is for me to participate in discussions of race, when my personal and family background is remarkable in its indifference to race, I despair of finding venues to hear the stories of those who have more reason to not revisit ugly events in our collective past. Our Diversity Book Club does wonderful things, but I don’t see how we could contribute to that effort since we don’t seem to attract people with those stories to tell and probably wouldn’t appear to be a safe group for sharing such secrets.
Our Diversity Book Club meeting was a week ago. I’ve now reached a place of more grace, with less fretting about things I can’t or won’t do anything about. The usual strategy worked (someday I will remember to employ it more quickly): gratitude. I am grateful to the people who are getting these stories in spite of the difficulties. Michele Norris tells a moving anecdote about a seventy year old white man who remembers throwing rocks during integration protests in this video where she reads some of the Race Cards she received: Aspen Ideas Festival-Michele Norris.
I have had occasions in the past to be grateful to those blacks who succeeded despite oppression and the whites who supported them. The Grace of Silence made me newly grateful to the people who were less visible, the people who silently got on with it: the blacks who swallowed rage so that their children would feel less of it and the whites who stopped throwing rocks and made sure that their children never started. That’s what it takes to achieve big change in only two generations.
Appeal: The Grace of Silence is quickly read and touches on a remarkable number of points of American history. I learned things about African-American service members’ experiences in World War II, about the marketing of maple syrup at county fairs and street festivals, and about what it was like to live in Birmingham, Alabama in the late 1940s. This is a conversation about race that manages to be universal because it is so personal. Michele Norris invites us to think about how our attitudes and those of our relatives and communities have changed in the past sixty years.
Do you have venues that encourage you to talk about the history of race in America or about promoting diversity? Do you believe that Americans are having a healthy amount of conversation in this area or do you think we need more or less?