Things Said, and Unsaid

The Grace of Silence
Michele Norris

According to the introduction, Michele Norris (of NPR’s All Things Considered) began the book in 2009 after becoming convinced that a conversation about race was happening, but that things were being unsaid. She wanted to get at the real issues, not just dance around them. What did people really think about race in America when we were about to inaugurate our first black President?

The cover has a quote from Toni Morrison. She says “An insightful, elegant rendering of how the history of an American family illuminates the history of our country.” That strikes me as inconvertibly true. Norris does a wonderful job intertwining her family’s history with the brutal events in America during the twentieth century.

This is a personal story. You can see Norris struggling with learning her own family history, and trying to reconcile it with the parents and family members she grew up with. Her family, especially her father, did not talk about certain things. In fact, she never knew that her father had once been shot by a policeman in Alabama shortly after he was discharged from the Navy. When she finds this out she is flabbergasted.  Her mother, who had divorced her father many years before the revelation, said that had she known, it would have explained a lot.

Her quest to find out what happened during this shooting forms a good portion of the book. Norris is desperate for details, but they are hard to come by. Court and police records have not been retained. Some have been deliberately lost. The major (white) newspapers did not report when a white police officer shot a young black man.

Norris finally interviews a family neighbor who was around during the time of the shooting. He tells her what he remembers. As he talks to her, he “wonders whether my father might have been killed” had things gone slightly differently. Norris immediately states

“This seem far-fetched to me. More likely than not, the police intended only to put some black men in their place, not six feet under.”

However, only fifteen pages later, Norris talks about how the six week period around her father’s shooting, six young black veterans were shot and killed by the police. One of those men, Timothy Hood, was sitting in the back of a police car when he was shot in the head by the chief of police. The shooting was almost instantaneously ruled a justifiable killing. Somehow, it doesn’t seem as farfetched as one might like to think that Norris’s father could have been killed, rather than wounded, in his shooting.

Norris may have intended to get at the unsaid, and she certainly revealed some of it. But what this book shows most of all is how much is still left unspoken.  I do not fault her for this. I do not fault her family for choosing silence as a coping mechanism. I do not want to diminish their struggle, or imply that they should have done it differently. Absolutely not. What this revealed to me was the tremendous, crushing burden borne by people of color in this country.

As for me, I expect more from those who walk around wearing their white privilege completely unaware. It is not the same when a black mother tells her son to be wary of white police officers and when a white mother tells her daughter to lock her doors when driving through a black neighborhood. It’s just not. The white mother has a whole institutionalized power structure that backs up her implication that black people are poor, that they are thieves, that they are a danger to white women. The black mother? Not so much.  To imply that it is the same is to let the white power structure off the hook much too easily.

We must do better. We have so much farther to go before we even come close to living in Dr. King’s society where we truly value people not for the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

I encourage everyone to read this book, and to expect more.

FYI: “The Grace of Silence” is being released in paperback September 6th.


4 thoughts on “Things Said, and Unsaid

  1. Great review– it reminds me of an incredible teaching moment I had last spring in an Introduction to Multicultural Lit course. We were getting ready to read Mat Johnson's Incognegro (a graphic novel about light skinned black men investigating lynchings in the 1950s) so I showed my students a series of photographs taken immediately after lynchings in the South. The photographs featured crowds of white men, women and children often smiling and waving at the cameras. Most of the cards had dates, locations and brief messages handwritten on the back as well. After I showed a couple of slides one of my students put her hand up and said 'I recognize where that last one was taken, it's around the corner from my church back in Georgia. I want to know why I had to come all the way to college to find out what happened in my backyard.' We stopped class right then to have a discussion about the power of silence to repress and alter understandings of history. It was a really incredible moment.I'll have to check out Norris's book (and maybe recommend it to some of my students who still struggle with the idea of silences in conversations…). Thanks so much for bringing it up!

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