NPR Host Michele Norris talks about her memoir, ‘The Grace of Silence’

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LeTania Kirkland: You venture to write this book about other people and the conversation about race in America. What caused you to change course and write about your own family?

Michele Norris: Well, I started listening to this hidden conversation about race around the country because I wanted to capture it and write about it. And when I set the frequency to listen to that conversation, I started picking up bits and pieces of it in my own family. I started realizing that the older people in my family were talking about things that they’d never spoken of before. I realized as interested as I was in the other book, where I was listening to other people and examining how they talk and think about race, the story I had to pursue was my own family’s history.

Kirkland: As a journalist who’s normally telling other people’s stories, what was it like to switch roles and talk about your own family’s experience?

Norris: It was incredibly difficult and vertigo producing. I’m used to being on the side lines. I’m not used to being a part of the story, and I couldn’t stay on the side lines in this case. I had to get into the story, I had to speak honestly about not just what i was discovering, but what it meant to me.

Kirkland: And you found that your parents kept things from you regarding their own experience around race. That’s what you call the grace of silence. Why do you think they chose to keep those things from you?

Norris: They moved on. They decided not to dwell on painful aspects of their past. But I now understand something else, that they were trying to create a narrative of their lives about ambition, success and getting to a better place, but they also did not want to burden the next generation, and that is where the grace comes in because it would’ve been so easy for them to wallow in complaint or frustration or feed their kids a steady diet of regret, woe and complaint. And they didn’t do that, because they so badly wanted their children to soar, that they decided not to dwell on it.

Kirkland: You have your own children now. How as a parent do you negotiate your own grace of silence or not?

Norris: I grew up in a family with lots of secrets, and I just made those secrets public by writing a book about it. My children will know about the things I never knew when I was growing up. But i will try to not just put the information out there and let it sit, I’ll talk it through with them. I want them to take away from this a strong sense of perseverance and to know that bad things happen in life, but it doesn’t have to define you. I hope they will be a bit more open in their willingness to talk about this than previous generations were. I hope the main lesson they take from this is that they come from strong people.