Monday, November 8, 2010

"The Grace of Silence" by Michele Norris

I don't watch TV and I almost never listen to NPR, so I had no idea who Michele Norris is, or what she does for a living, when I picked up this book. The time period of the 1940's holds a special allure for me, after all, it was the decade in which my parents met. I have always been fascinated by the clothes, the politics, and the music of this era. The South, fueled by my Mother's stories of driving down to Florida and seeing the "Whites Only" signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains, has also always held me captive, with stories of racial injustices and the Ku Klux Klan. I grew up with Bull Connors always there on the sidelines in Birmingham, causing me to ask my 4th grade teacher what was so different about South Africa and Apartheid, when compared to what was happening in Alabama?

So this book seemed to have all the elements of what interests me in a memoir. I got more than I bargained for. Ms. Norris has penned a book that is, at first glance, the story of her father and his service in the Navy during the Second World War, and at the same time chronicles the history of the Civil Rights Movement, from it's real beginnings at the end of that war. Building upon this story, the author has created a vivid portrait of America from the 1940's through the present.

Beginning the book with some family history, the author quickly moves into the early 1960's when her father, Belvin Norris, Jr. bought a house in an all white neighborhood in Minnesota. The family has to work twice as hard to show that they are responsible homeowners. They are the first family to shovel the snow, and their garden is the most well tended. Gradually though, white flight does takes place, as was common all over America at the time.

Her parents were both Postal Workers, and they worked hard instilling pride in their children. The story of Ms. Norris' grandmother is a perfect example of pride. Ione Hopson was one of the many "Aunt Jemima's" who would travel from city to city making pancakes to advertise the product. As humiliating as this job might seem by today's standards, the author's grandmother showed some real backbone when she took this job, which only emblazoned the image of a happy black "Mammy" in the public eye. In deep contrast to this, she was the woman who began the U-Meet-Us Senior Citizen Center in Minneapolis, when there was no place relevant for black seniors to go.

After her father is discharged from the Navy, he heads home to Birmingham. At that time, and on through the turbulent 1960's, Birmingham would be the center of the Civil Rights Struggle. Within 2 weeks of being discharged from the Navy, Ms. Norris' father is involved in a scuffle with the police, during which he is shot in the leg. Ms. Norris grows up never hearing anything about this. When her father passes away, a family member lets this fact slip out, leading the author to chase down the story, as well as some of the surviving players. What she uncovers is the story of a nation, just returned from a war to promote Freedom, while denying that same right to it's African-American Citizens. This is the real beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Angry Veterans, returning home after fighting for their country, decided that they had endured enough. They wanted to be full citizens of the country for which they had just fought.

At this point the book turns from a memoir into a history of the Desegregation of the Armed Forces under President Truman. This came about in part due to the blinding of a recently discharged African-American named Isaac Woodward, who was a passenger aboard a bus traveling from Georgia to South Carolina. He was beaten and blinded by 2 police officers during a "rest stop" in Batesburg, South Carolina. Although his name has largely been lost to history, his ordeal sparked a national outcry, which included Orson Welles beginning a running commentary on his ABC radio show, entitled "What Does It Cost To Be A Negro?" For several months he shone a light on the officer involved, during which he said, "We have an appointment, you and I, and only death can cancel it." He was warned to back off and eventually fired.

This is a very unusual book, in that it is part memoir,and part history. It would be hard to seperate the history of the author's family from the history of the racial strife which has rocked our nation from it's birth.

For me, the most enduring character in the book is the author's father. He lived through those turbulent times. He paid, in sacrifices we can only imagine, for all of the freedoms he came to enjoy. He earned the legacy that his daughter stands on today.

At the beginning of the book, Ms. Norris talks about having a dialoque on race. The title of the book makes more sense to me. There is a special grace, and even dignity in silence. There is an old admonition that one should know when to say nothing. You cannot force someone to listen to that which they do not want to hear. The story of Ms. Norris' father, and all that he silently endured, proves it.

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