The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, by Michele Norris, Pantheon Books: Michele Norris, an award winning journalist with National Public Radio (NPR), originally set out to write a book about what she called “the hidden conversation” on race she was sure was taking place across the country in the post-racial age of Barack Obama.

As Norris put it, “The rise of a black man to the nation’s highest office has lowered the barrier for painful conversations among Americans of all colors, especially those who lived through the trials and tumult of forced segregation.” Along the way she stumbled over some shocking and somewhat painful family secrets which made her reassess what she thought she knew about her family, race relations and her own identity. In the process she places the story of her family and every other African American family smack in the middle of the American story.

Norris’s father, Belvin Norris, Jr., was one of six boys reared in Jim Crow Birmingham, Alabama; her mother, Betty Hopson, was the fourth generation of a family who were the only blacks in their small Minnesota town. After being discharged from the Jim Crow Army, Belvin Norris returned to Birmingham for a short time, and later became a part of the Second Great Migration, that mass exodus of southern blacks who moved North in the post-World War II era, landing in Minnesota. In the process, he became the epitome of a Midwesterner: solid, hard working, reticent. He and his wife acquired their impressive Minnesota home by hard work, thriftiness–and because they were the first blacks in the neighborhood–not a little trickery. When the Norris’s moved in, the whites in the neighborhood began moving out.

Betty and Belvin Norris came from a long line of strivers, African Americans who had pulled themselves up from tough circumstances to claim a piece of the American dream. Strivers succeeded by dint of hard work, faith and determination to show white people that they were as good as anyone else. Michele Norris was reared in that tradition. Excellence mattered in everything from yard work–the family often arose in the wee hours of the morning to be the first family to clean their walks of the snow and ice left by the brutal Minnesota winters–to school work. They also ensured that their daughter Michele would not lose touch with her southern roots, sending her to Alabama every summer from the time she was a child until she entered junior high school.

The Grace of Silence centers around two deep, dark family secrets. The first is dealt with early in the book: Norris’s grandmother, Ione Hopson, worked for the Quaker Oats Company in the late 1940's through the early 1950's as a traveling Aunt Jemima. Donning the stereotypical dress of a plantation cook, she would travel to small Midwestern town, extolling the virtues of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. While some in the family were ashamed of this, her grandmother was not. Indeed, she saw it as a way to favorably represent her race to whites, especially the children, and prove that blacks were human beings. It also gave her an opportunity to shine in a way she could not in the closed and racist community in which she was reared.

Unraveling the other secret, the shooting of her father by a white Birmingham policeman, forms the remainder of the book. In between Norris tries to make sense of how her family’s past shaped her present beliefs, values and behavior, and whether dignified silence is more vice than virtue.

The Grace of Silence is more a collection of lyrical stories, shadowy reminiscences and solid reporting then a memoir. The book breaks down toward the end, reminding me of a college essay that has exceeded its page limit and so must now be wrapped up. No matter, though. Norris has written an interesting and compelling book, and she makes a strong case to the reader about the value of gathering memories and unearthing secrets before it is too late.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.