Accuracy and fairness have been the major qualities of Michele Norris’ work as a print and broadcast journalist. Though she’s earned the bulk of her acclaim and awards for her contributions to National Public Radio, Norris also covered educational, cultural and social issues for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times prior to joining NPR. Her interest in not only what people think but how they feel led to the creation of “The York Project: Race and the ‘08 Vote,” a superb series of frank and provocative conversations co-hosted by Norris and fellow NPR reporter/host Steve Inskeep.
It was the brutally honest, frequently painful recollections and opinions voiced throughout the series that led Norris to consider her own life and background and ultimately craft her poignant and insightful memoir, The Grace of Silence. She wanted to examine the complex, thorny reality of race and class through the prism of her family. But the quest to discover these truths proved her most difficult assignment. Not only did Norris become part of the story, she uncovered and had to discuss events and situations relatives wanted kept out of the public record. The process also made her address discomforting personal issues, most notably that her journalistic training was causing problems with people she’d loved and admired for decades.
Norris’ discoveries ranged from her grandmother’s employment as a regional “Aunt Jemima” selling pancake mix, to the police shooting of her father during a suspicious incident in Birmingham decades before the civil rights movement. Her exploration of these incidents, along with her probing of the reasons behind her parents’ divorce, took its emotional toll. Norris describes in simple, moving language the shattering impact of her findings, yet she remains certain that her quest was vital and the things she learned significant, both to her study of race and her overall personal growth and development.
The Grace of Silence combines powerful observations and reflections with equally poignant historical reportage and commentary. It’s a work both uniquely personal and universal, offering a story everyone regardless of background can embrace.