"An insightful, elegant rendering of how the history of an
American family illuminates the history of our country." -Toni
"Exquisite. . . [A] rich account of family history." -Seattle
"Powerful and heartbreaking. . . . [Norris] explores race within
her family history while tracing its complex legacy in the United
States." -San Francisco Chronicle
"A riveting, inspiring memoir of an at once singular and
representative American family. Norris takes us on a painful yet
triumphant journey of self-discovery. . . . Powerful and tender,
The Grace of Silence reveals our human complexity in
exemplary fashion." -Henry Louis Gates, Jr., University Professor
and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University,
and author of Colored People
"A deeply personal reflection on what her parents and grandparents
did and did not tell her about her history and identity as a black
woman. . . . A fresh and candid reflection on this most important
conversation." -Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Gracefully written and carefully researched, it offers up
long-buried family secrets as a testimony to racism's power and
reach." -Los Angeles Times
"A powerful plea to readers to doggedly pursue their families'
story lines. She reminds us that speaking candidly about race in
America starts not at the president's teleprompter but at our own
dinner tables." -The Washington Post
"An open and honest examination of race relations in her family's
and the country's past." -Chicago Tribune
"Jaw-dropping. Can't put down. . . . Riveting. . . . [Norris] uses
her signature calm and steady voice to open up about her
complicated relatives." -Essence
"A revealing, affectionate and sometimes painful memoir which
dispenses with stereotype to get to the heart of what makes a
family." -Gwen Ifill, Moderator, "Washington Week," PBS
"With learned candor, [Norris] describes the corrosive effect of
family stories left untold. . . . We may not hear those stories
until we ask for them. But some things simply must be said."
"Revelatory, heart-piercing." -The Baltimore Sun
"In the hands of a gifted storyteller, a memoir becomes more than a
chronicle of the writer's life. It becomes the history of a time
and a place. So it is with this magnificent memoir-one of the most
eloquent, moving and insightful memoirs I have ever read."
-Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author
of the New York Times bestseller Team of Rivals
"Letter-perfect, beguiling. . . . Powerful. . . . Her well rounded
view of the world demonstrates wisdom given by her strong,
intelligent mother and her hard-working, proud father."
"Michele Norris takes us on a riveting personal journey from north
to south and back again through the tangled landscape of race in
America-and teaches anew about the pain and possibilities of our
past and future." -Tom Brokaw, author of New York Times
bestsellers The Greatest Generation and Boom
1. Michele Norris discovered family secrets because elders in
her family started divulging stories in the wake of Barack Obama''s
election. What were conversations about race like during the 2008
election? Was there a difference between public and private
discussions? Have those conversations changed in the last two
2. How did family secrets affect life in the Norris home? What
does Norris mean when she says she was "shaped by the weight of
silence"? In your own family, have you had the experience of
finding out something about a family member that you never knew?
Alternatively, have you ever been the keeper of such secrets?
3. In the airport, Norris watches two women misjudge her father
as a drunk rather than a very ill man, but chooses not to confront
them. How is her decision related to being a "model minority"? Do
you understand Norris's belated desire to be the black girl some
white women are conditioned to fear most? What do you think of her
statement that "Blacks often feel the dispiriting burden of being
perceived willy-nilly as representing an entire race"?
4. While Norris feels certain that the white women's reaction is
informed by race, she cannot be absolutely sure: "Here is the
conundrum of racism. You know it's there, but you can't prove,
beyond a reasonable doubt, how it colors a particular situation."
Have you experienced times when you thought race was a factor but
were unable to prove it? What choices have you made to address or
ignore the possibility of racist behavior?
5. Norris's mother and uncle have different perceptions of her
grandmother Ione's work as a traveling Aunt Jemima. While her
mother has mixed emotions, her uncle says, "I know a lot of people
are ashamed of that image but I am not. . . . She put that costume
on and she was a star." Norris finds a similar range of reactions
when she delves into the history of Aunt Jemima. The owner of
Mammy's Cupboard restaurant says, "Sometimes I don't understand why
black folks don't claim her, because she was theirs first. She's
still theirs, isn't she?" What's your answer to that question? What
does the Aunt Jemima image mean to you? Does the upgrade to her
image destigmatize the logo? What are other examples of complicated
images in American commercial life?
6. The Norris family were "block busters" in Minneapolis. Do you
live in a community that was or still is segregated by race or
class? Why do you think the neighbor who was a displaced person was
so unwelcoming to the Norris family?
7. Belvin and Betty Norris were sartorial activists, dressing to
impress in all circumstances. Do you understand why? Do you
find yourself doing the same thing? Why do you think certain groups
put so much emphasis on outward appearances such as clothes or
8. Norris writes that she was deprived of the story of her
father's shooting not only because of family silence, but "because
the collective story of the black World War II veteran had been
slighted." Before reading The Grace of Silence, did you
know the history of black veterans during and after World War II?
What affect do you think this period had on civil rights in America
and what does it mean that it is rarely discussed these days, if at
9. Why do you think Belvin Norris never talked about his
encounter with Birmingham police with his wife or children? Do you
think he would have talked about it if asked? How does his silence
compare to Betty Norris's reluctance to talk about her mother's
Aunt Jemima job?
10. While Norris didn't know the story of her father's arrest,
her cousin had "heard about it from his father during a cautionary
'never look a cop in the eye' conversation that black men often
have with their teenage sons." Black communities refer to DWB
(driving while black) as shorthand for police profiling. The recent
immigration law in Arizona also singles out a particular group. Do
you think such profiling is a problem in America? Do you agree with
its use in any situation?
11. Why do you think Belvin Norris returned to Birmingham so
often with his family despite his violent encounter? Has your
family or anyone in it had to exile themselves from a place? Did
you or they return to that place, or avoid it completely?
12. Norris makes the point that white officers in Birmingham in
the 1940s and '50s earned less than what they would make in the
mills or the mines. They had to provide their own flashlights and
pistols, and they were led by a man-Bull Conner-who was overtly
racist. Does knowing more about the officers' situation affect how
we understand their actions?
13. Julia Beaton says to Norris: "I have no white American
friends. I just don't care for them. I just don't trust them. I
have always told my sons and my grandsons not to bring a woman in
this house who does not look like me." What was your reaction to
Beaton's statements? Do you respond differently to her, as an older
black woman, than you do to the older white men and women that
Norris also interviews? Should we judge her words less harshly than
we might a white person saying "I just don't trust black
14. Aubrey Justice tells Norris that "In some ways it seems like
things were better when the races had their own." Norris reflects,
"I wonder whether Justice might not be speaking the truth, at least
in part. You can't visit my grandparents' neighborhood in Ensley
and avoid asking, Did integration work as planned?" Was
Birmingham's black community better off in some ways during
segregation? Is that true for other communities? Who is
responsible for the changes that have come to neighborhoods like
15. Have you lived in a neighborhood or worked in an environment
or attended a school that went through the initial stages of
integration? What was your experience as the integrator or
member of the majority culture?
16. Davis Shull laments, "Nowadays everything is racist. No
matter what you say. You can't tell the truth without being racist.
You can't say anything." Political correctness is an enormous focus
in American life. Does it leave any room for real conversations
about race? What role does such correctness play in stories like
Shirley Sherrod's, and also in situations like Joe Biden describing
Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate
and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy"? Was Attorney
General Eric Holder right when he said, "Though this nation has
proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things
racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways,
essentially a nation of cowards"? Do you understand what Holder
meant when he suggested that "to get to the heart of this country
one must examine its racial soul"?
17. There is often the assumption that white people are
responsible for the persistence of racism. There is less emphasis,
Norris writes, on exploring "the legacy of distrust black parents
pass on to their children." Is there an imbalance in the way we see
the legacies of race in America?
18. Take some time to discuss racial stereotypes. What
characteristics (lazy, driven, violent, studious, etc.) are
attached to certain racial and religious groups: blacks, Jews,
Muslims, Asians, Latinos, whites, etc.? Do different groups hold
the same images of each other-would a white man see the same
stereotypes as a black woman or a Latino teenager? Consider as well
the role of race and gender in those stereotypes.
19. Norris asks a powerful question at the end of The Grace
of Silence: "What's been more corrosive to the dialogue on
race in America over the last half century or so, things said or
unsaid?" Discuss your responses.
20. "All the talk of a postracial American betrays an all too
glib eagerness to put in remission a four-hundred-year-old
cancerous social disease. We can't let it rest until we attend to
its symptoms in ourselves and others." Norris's work demands that
we look at our own lives and consider how honest we are with
ourselves and how open we are with each other. Are you able to talk
about race with friends? Are you honest with yourselves about your
own prejudices? What legacies have your families and communities
bequeathed to you? What have you passed or want to pass on to your
children? Have you ever been accused of being a racist? Why
does that label carry such stigma?
21. The question at the heart of Norris's memoir is "How well do
you know the people who raised you?" Carry this question home with
you and, as Norris states, "take the bold step and say: Tell me
more about yourself." Stay at the table even if the conversation is
difficult, and prepare yourself to listen. "There is grace in
silence, and power to be had from listening to that which, more
often than not, was left unsaid."
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