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Michele Norris On Race, And 'The Grace Of Silence'

Michele Norris, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, can still picture her father vividly: Belvin Norris Jr. walked a little unevenly, with a touch of syncopation. She never thought much of the very slight limp until 2008 -- long after her father's death -- when her uncle made a shocking, off-hand comment.

"I was having breakfast with my Uncle Joe," Norris tells her NPR colleague, Steve Inskeep. "He was on this rant about how young people have it easy, and they don't know what other people have sacrificed for them." Between spoonfuls of oatmeal, Uncle Joe said matter-of-factly: "Well, you know your dad was shot."

Norris had no idea; her father had never told her. The revelation drove her to launch an investigation into her family's history -- and their place in the larger, painful history of race in America -- stories which she tells in her new memoir, The Grace Of Silence.

'He Put It Aside'

Belvin Norris, an African-American from the South, moved to Minnesota and bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. On snowy mornings, he'd shovel the sidewalks before anybody else woke up, Norris says, as if to announce that the black family on the block had their house in order.

It was difficult for Norris to find out what really happened to her father during his youth in Alabama. The shooting occurred in Birmingham in 1946, and almost everyone involved in it had already died. The event was not covered by the media.

Norris has determined that this much is true: Her father was a veteran of the Navy and had just returned to Birmingham, Ala. The city had been transformed by World War II -- it was full of steel mills, and many people had migrated there to take advantage of defense industry jobs. Veterans of the war returned home to a country in transition.

"[Black veterans] had fought for democracy overseas," Norris says, "and they were hungry for a taste of it back home."

Just days after her father returned, his fellow black veterans marched in lockstep through the streets of downtown Birmingham. They converged at the courthouse, and walked inside to assert their right to vote. "Birmingham wasn’t ready for that," Norris says.

Belvin Norris was not at the demonstration that day, but he and his brother Woodrow had gone out for the evening for an event at the Pythian Temple -- one of two buildings in Birmingham that housed the city's black establishment. Tensions in the city were high, and as the brothers approached the elevators, police officers cut them off. One officer stuck a police baton in Belvin's face.

Norris, who remembers her father as nonconfrontational, was initially surprised to learn that he swatted the officer's billy club aside -- it was "the kind of thing that would get you in a whole lot of trouble in 1946 in Birmingham," Norris says. In the scuffle that ensued, one of the officers pointed a gun at Belvin's chest. Woodrow deflected the gun and it discharged -- hitting Belvin in the leg. He and Woodrow were arrested.

Norris' father suffered a "superficial physical wound," Norris says, but she knows the event must have affected him deeply -- and she wishes she understood how.

"I yearn to be able to talk to him about this," she says. "He put it aside, and he left it in his past like a forgotten sock, [but] I know that it had to have lived somewhere deep inside him."

'Not With Anger, But With Hope'

While writing her memoir, Norris wrestled to understand why her father never told her about the shooting. She grew up surrounded by a lot of relatives, all of whom knew the story. But nobody thought to tell her about it while her father was still alive.

Norris says she has come to accept her father's decision not to burden her with what had happened to him. The title of her memoir, The Grace of Silence, is in honor of what she calls his "incredibly graceful act" of shielding her from his past.

"Our parents tell us what they think we need to know," Norris says. "And my father didn't think I needed to know [about the shooting]. He wanted to make sure that my path forward was uncluttered by his pain."

Had she known about this painful episode, Norris says, she certainly would have been a different child, and likely would have been a different adult.

Belvin Norris' choice to leave the past behind is representative of his generation of black veterans, Norris says -- these men had fought for their country overseas, and then had to fight again for their dignity back at home.

"They had every reason to be angry at America," Norris says. "They had every reason to be disappointed with their country. … They moved forward not with anger but with hope. They woke up every day trying to show America what they could be. And in doing that [they were trying] to show America what it could be."

Now a parent herself, Norris says she appreciates now more than ever how wise her parents were. "I'm raising children now, and I have to decide every day what I tell them," Norris says.

Though her father never shared this dark chapter of his past, Norris is at peace with the way she has made his story public. "I wondered: What would Dad say about this? What would he think about this? And I decided that I think he would be OK."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.