Interview with Kam Williams
Born on September 7, 1961, Michele Norris was the youngest of three sisters raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Betty and Belvin Norris, Jr. Since studying Communications at the University of Minnesota, Michele has embarked on a stellar career in journalism.
Best known as the current co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, she was recently honored with the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award for The York Project: Race and the ’08 Vote. In 2009, she was named the Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Norris has written for a variety of publications, including The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. As a correspondent for ABC News from 1993 to 2002, she earned Emmy and Peabody awards for her contribution to the network’s reporting of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Michele lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Broderick Johnson, and their three children. Here, she discusses “The Grace of Silence,” a poignant memoir exploring unspoken family skeletons revolving around the race.
Kam Williams: Michele, thanks for the time. I loved the book.
Michele Norris: Thank you. I took a look at your review of it, and it’s clear that you had dived right into it. And it sounds like I had a surprise for you. [Laughs]
KW: Yeah, although I’ve listened to you for years on the radio I never knew you were black. So, that made the content of your memoir all the more surprising, since it revolves so much around racial issues. My readers came up with such great questions for you that I’d like to get right to them. FSU grad Laz Lyles says, “I’d like to know what gave you the courage to write the book, considering that your family dealt with tragedy and adversity in a very private and quiet way.”
MN: This was a difficult journey… It was my mother who initially signaled subtly that she was ready to talk about this, and then sent further signals that she might be ready to let me write about it. Eventually, she actually said out loud that she wanted me to write this book when she was gone. Once I got that green light from her, once she stepped in the boat, I knew I had to do it to honor our family history, and I knew I had to do it right. And once I started down that road, there was no turning back for me. I had a voracious appetite to learn all I could, not just about my grandparents’ individual experiences and what had happened to my father in Alabama, but about the world they’d lived in. I needed to know how that had impacted me, because it was clear that I’d been shaped not just by the things they did talk about, but also by what they didn’t dare talk about.
KW: I know what you mean. My father undoubtedly encountered a great deal of discrimination while serving in the segregated U.S. military during World War II, and again as one of the first blacks to integrate the NYC Fire Department. Yet he never complained about any of it to his kids during our childhood.
MN: Think about that…Think about your father… There’s so much in that thought you shared. It would have been so easy for him to come home and let it all out, and grouse until bedtime, because he had to keep it all bottled up inside while he was at work. Imagine if that had been the house you’d grown up in, if that had been what you heard. That’s what I was trying to get at when I titled this book, “The Grace of Silence.” A generation of Americans who had so many reasons to be angry at the world, and who could’ve instructed their children to brace themselves for a torrent of hatred and low expectations, instead set high expectations and armed their offspring with ambition instead of rage. That was incredible, for a generation to suffer all that they did and yet to choose to order their priorities so that their children would not be weighed down by their pain. They understood that if you really want your kids to fly, you don’t put stones in their pockets.
KW: Something I like about your book is how besides discussing Black silence it also explores the corresponding skeletons in white folks’ closets.
MN: I very much wanted to understand how life was lived on the other side of the color line, particularly in my father’s Alabama in the 40s and 50s. Part of what I want people to take away from the book is that white America had its secrets, too. It is quite obvious that they had also had stopped talking about them. So, because people on both sides of the color line decided not to speak about that period, we don’t have a really good understanding of what preceded the 60s’ Civil Rights Era.
KW: I was struck by the frank reflections of the white woman who admitted hearing her father say, “We have to have a good lynching every once in a while to keep the nigger in his place.”
MN: And she recalled how shocking it had been for her to hear it coming from her father, because he had forged friendships across the color line, and wasn’t a member of the Klan or even a redneck racist. There are a lot of people who grew up around that sort of sentiment. So, if we really want to talk honestly about race, then that conversation is probably going to get a little bit prickly. It may make your stomach churn. It may make you a lot more than merely uncomfortable.
KW: How were you affected by the revelation of the family secret that your father had been shot in his Navy uniform by a white police officer right after returning to Birmingham at the end of World War II?
MN: It affected me deeply, and in ways that I’m still discovering… [Pauses] Sorry, I can’t really find words that can fully encompass the depth my pain about what transpired. I was so surprised to realize that my father, who had a sunny disposition and such a warm and kind temperament, must have nonetheless been dragging around this huge weight which we just couldn’t see. It’s really hard to reconcile his emotional burden with the fact that I never had an opportunity to talk to him about it. [Sighs] That’s really hard to reconcile… and still affects me on a personal level in many ways. I don’t know if I will ever get used to saying that my father was shot.
KW: How important is spirituality in your daily life?
MN: Very. It was very important in the household growing up, and it is a rock that I reach for many times a day. It is a gift that I try to give my children with the knowledge that there is something larger than them that will guide them and protect them and give them strength at moments when things perhaps don’t make sense.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls says, “‘The Grace of Silence’ is in many ways every black person’s story. My family moved from I don’t know where South Carolina. To this day my family does not talk about their lives in The South. Is there grace in silence? Should we, as the next generation of blacks, be unearthing the skeletons and pain of what our grandparents endured under Jim Crow? Or should we let sleeping dogs lie? What lessons can we learn?”
MN: There are a lot of questions there. I’ll try to answer a few. I believe there IS grace in silence. Still, I think it is worth trying to go back to unearth some of those secrets. To use Irene’s metaphor, it’s time to awaken those sleeping dogs, but to do it respectfully. It is incumbent upon those of us raised by the generation that had to endure the indignities of Jim Crow to demonstrate a certain grace in the silence that accompanies being a good listener, and thus providing the space for a great unburdening. I feel keenly that, at some point, the elders who locked away their stories will suddenly want to talk about them. My father left this Earth in 1988, and my great regret in life is that I will have to go to my own grave wondering whether I failed to create a space for him to share his story. So, when those of his generation remaining are ready to talk, we have to make sure that we’re willing to listen. But we have to lead them there.
KW: The title of your book was originally going to be “Say What.” She says, “I love the new title. It’s especially poignant since you relate your family’s story of silence. I heard only for the first time certain stories of my own parents living through what we would consider appalling acts of racism. Why did you change the title?”
MN: Originally, I really liked that title because it was a double entendre which could be interpreted in several ways. But when the anecdotes in the book started to take an intimate, personal and very revealing turn, “Say What” seemed too flippant, and didn’t match the gravitas of the project anymore.
KW: “What do you think the biggest threat to media is nowadays? Biased reporting? The decline of traditional revenue models for print, TV and radio companies?”
MN: There are many threats. I don’t know which one’s the biggest. Part of the problem is the instant news culture. So many people are looking for news on the go. If you really want to understand the world, you’re not going to by consuming news in the form of bite-sized haikus. I’m sorry to step up on a soapbox, but I have strong feelings about this.
KW: Tommy is curious about whether you ever watch Fox News?
MN: I do, on a regular basis.
KW: And he’d like to know whether you get chills at work when you hear the opening of for All Things Considered?
MN: [Chuckles] I don’t exactly get chills but every day, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, I get this little adrenaline rush, even if I’m not on the air, like weekends.
KW: When Charles Osgood signs off on ‘Sunday Morning,’ he says, “I’ll see you on the radio.” She says, “For those who haven’t been able to see you, but now can, what do you hope they will see that they may not have seen before?”
MN: Wow, that’s an interesting question! I hope they see someone who’s curious and open to hearing all kinds of things. It’s been nice to have been somewhat anonymous being in radio, but I’m not anymore. Although it’s called “The Grace of Silence,” my hope is that this book will start small conversations in intimate settings like kitchen tables, workplace break rooms and college dormitories.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MN: Did you get lunch today? [LOL]
KW: Are you ever afraid?
MN: I am often afraid. I’m not Wonder Woman. But I was lucky enough to have been taught as a child by nuns to stare down my fears every day by doing something that absolutely terrified me. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.
KW: Are you happy?
MN: I am… I’m blessed.
KW: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
MN: A minute ago in the course of this conversation. [LOL] A good sense of humor is something I try to hold onto. My father always said, “You have to laugh to keep from crying, and boy was he right about that.”
KW: What was the last book you read?
MN: I just re-read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It was required summer reading for all the parents at my children’s school. It’s a wonderful book which is great for generating some interesting conversation.
KW: What are you listening to on your iPod?
MN: My iPod is always on shuffle. But if you want to know what artist really has got my juices going, I am just a stone-cold Janelle Monae addict. The girl is sassy and smart, and she’s got the dance moves and the attitude. I defy you to sit still listening to her. I just can’t wait to see what she does next.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
MN: Oh, I cook all the time. But my favorite dish to cook is gumbo at Christmas. The Christmas gumbo is special, it takes two days to make and it’s really good.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
MN: That my children be happy.
KW: How do you get through the tough times?
MN: I breathe deeply, and I pray.
KW: Have you ever wished you could have your anonymity back?
MN: I feel like I still have it, but you can check back with me on that.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
MN: Work hard, write often.
KW: First, how introspective are you?
MN: Very. I don’t think anybody could walk the journey that I just did without being duly introspective.
KW: How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?
MN: That she did well by her family. I’m going to borrow a line from Thurgood Marshall, “She did the best she could with what she had.”
KW: Michele, thanks again for the interview, and for writing a very important book which, in my estimation, might have a salutary effect on the culture.
MN: Thanks Kam, and all the best to you.