Journalist Michele Norris has co-hosted National Public Radio’s evening news show ‘All Things Considered’ since Dec. 9, 2002. She previously reported for ABC News, where she received a Peabody Award and an Emmy for her coverage of 9/11, and she has written for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. She was named “Journalist of the Year” in 2009 by the National Association of Black Journalists. Norris spoke in the Jones Chapel at Meredith College in Raleigh Monday on the last leg of a book tour for her new memoir, The Grace of Silence. Afterward, she talked with The Chronicle’s Julian Spector.
The Chronicle: What was the process that led to writing your memoir?
Michele Norris: Well, it wasn’t supposed to be a memoir. I was originally planning on writing a series of essays about race in America and how people think about race and how people talk about race around the election of [President] Barack Obama. To do that, I wanted to listen to the things people don’t say necessarily in public spaces. I wanted to eavesdrop on the private conversation about race. And when I set out to eavesdrop on the private conversation I was also listening to the private conversation in my family, not with the intent of reporting on my family, but what happened was, in those private conversations among family members, all these stories started spilling out—stories that I’d never heard before, aspects of our family history that were new to me, completely new to me. And when I started listening to that conversation close to home, at meals with my family, I realized that I couldn’t let go of those stories. The more I learned from my family, the deeper it pulled me into these roiling waters of family history. And I wound up taking a sharp left turn. I realized even though I had this careful strategy for writing this other book, that I was pulled in another direction and I was heading towards memoir.
TC: What were some of the most striking discoveries along that process?
MN: You know, people focus on the big discoveries that form, I guess, the tent poles for the book, the discovery that my grandmother worked for a time as an itinerant Aunt Jemima, that the family never talked about that, the discovery that my father had been shot as a young man when he returned from his military service [in World War II], and had never talked about that, amazingly. My father, who was a very proud and very quiet postal worker, had been carrying around, despite his ordinary existence... this extraordinary secret all his life. Those were sort of the big astonishing things that really rocked my world. But throughout the process there were all these little smaller discoveries, about my family, but mainly about American history, things that I just didn’t know, things that helped me understand how veterans were treated when they returned from war, how America dealt with really difficult questions of integration and inclusion and segregation before the Civil Rights Movement. That the modern day Civil Rights Movement started well beyond the chapters that we usually focus on in our modern-day history books, which is the mid-to late 60s, that it really began in the mid-40s, when black veterans were returning from their military service and tried to assert basic rights. The series of events that led up to the integration of the armed forces, what it meant when integration played out on a very granular level, classroom by classroom, block by block, mortgage application by mortgage application. Those were the smaller surprises that made for a very rich process in the writing of this story. And I think [it] will make for hopefully a rich and illuminating process for people who pick up this book. I think you will learn a lot of things that you didn’t know. I certainly did. I consider “all things” every day before 4 o’clock—I thought I knew a lot and it turns out that there was much I didn’t know, and it’s not because of a certain amount of ignorance, it’s because there are certain aspects of our history—recent history that Americans just don’t talk about—[that] it tends to be a little bit prickly and a little bit painful.
TC: Do you think following the election of Obama those stories are being told now, out in the open, more than they were before?
MN: Out in the open—that’s the big question. I’ve been travelling all over the country—this is city number 33 in a 35-city tour—and for all the talk about the consternation and the alleged cowardice when it comes to race, I find that I am, night after night, hall after hall and auditorium after auditorium, having very candid and robust conversations that often revolve around race—and yes, family secrets, and class and other issues, but race is usually at the heart of it. And people are willing to talk, and they unburden themselves. It’s an open conversation. I think that this conversation about race is happening, it’s just not necessarily happening in a big public space, in cable television studios or sort of national forums. It’s happening in smaller spaces—in dormitories and in work spaces and in church basements and in bookstores, when people come together and talk about stories and share their concerns or their questions or some piece of their history. I have come to the conclusion that there might never be this big grand national conversation where we all talk at the same time at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. That may not happen. And people sort of think that that—they’re led to believe that that’s what might have happened, I guess, after Barack Obama delivered this big speech calling for this national conversation. And despite the fact that there might not be this grand national conversation, I do think that a conversation is happening on a national level. And it’s often profound, and it’s often quite productive. And, yes, it’s often pretty prickly also, but it’s happening. And the most productive and the most profound conversations about race are probably the conversations you never hear unless you’re party to them.
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