Twenty years after her father died, Michele Norris learned why he walked with a slight limp.
Norris, an author and award-winning journalist, learned her father, a black Navy veteran returning from World War II in 1946, was shot in the leg by a white police officer in segregated Birmingham, Ala.
He was grazed by a bullet in a scuffle after trying to enter a building where black veterans were being taught civics classes required to register to vote.
In a speech hosted Sept. 13 by Oberlin College, Norris told some 400 people at Finney Chapel that her father’s silence about the incident was not out of shame. He didn’t want to burden her with anger over how racism personally affected their family.
Norris said the incident and other family stories — her grandmother dressed as Aunt Jemima to sell pancake mix to make ends meet — inspired her to write a book about America’s racial history from a personal view. The result is “The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir,” which she is promoting during a national tour to discuss race in America.
Norris said her father was lucky. Other black veterans were burned, castrated, and lynched in the South after returning from the war. Norris noted how the blinding of black Army veteran Issac Woodard by South Carolina police a few months after her father was shot led President Harry Truman to desegregate the military.
Norris said her father, who died in 1988, wasn’t bitter about being shot. He carried around a pocket Constitution he could recite from memory and treasured the right to vote.
“He loved the country that didn’t love him back and he gave me that love of country,” Norris said. “I wrote a book about my family’s story because I hoped it would encourage other people to look at their own histories and to look boldly at American history with all of its pain and turmoil, but also its triumph.”
Norris, a former National Public Radio host and newspaper and television reporter, said she became interested in having a national conversation on race while covering the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. The phrase, “post-racial society” was often used during and shortly after the election and NPR later hosted a discussion on race among 15 voters from York, Pa.
People are often afraid to discuss race because they are afraid to be accused of racism for their beliefs, but Norris said the discussion was candid, controversial, and well-received. It led her to start the Race Card Project in which she challenged people to write stories about race in six or fewer words on postcards. The short sentence idea was to encourage writers to be concise.
The project is now online. Norris said thousands of people have emailed or mailed postcards from about 70 countries. Some writers are frustrated: “Not allowed to be proud.” “You can’t touch my hair.” Lady, I don’t want your purse.”
Other responses are sad or profound: “It matters like it or not,” “I will not ruin your bloodline.” “I feel uncomfortable with you here.” And, occasionally, some are funny: “Total nonissue when aliens arrive.” “Underneath, we all taste like chicken.”
Norris said she hopes to encourage people to talk to, rather than at, each other about race.
She said it needs to be done face-to-face, not on social media, and advised having the discussion during a meal to relax the mood. She said people should be prepared to listen to views they disagree with even if they don’t accept them.
Norris also said America should celebrate its diversity rather than seeking a post-racial society. She said a post-racist society may not be possible but should be a goal.
Rebecca Lawrence, an Oberlin College junior, said she grew up listening to Norris on NPR and wanted to put a face with the voice. She agrees with Norris about not wanting a post-racial society.
“It’s not the great American melting pot,” Lawrence said. “It’s like just having a bland piece of paper rather than a colorful painting.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Author and journalist Michele Norris spoke Sept. 13 at Finney Chapel about race. Norris is promoting a national conversation on race and her book “The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir.”