Eavesdropping on America’s Conversation on Race

On February 24th, I had the opportunity to attend Michele Norris’s event, “Eavesdropping on America’s Conversation on Race,” at the University of San Diego. In this program, Norris engaged with the audience, while speaking about different critical racial issues. She provided the listeners with stories from her family’s past, connecting them to the present. Her talk was an eyeopener and essential to force the audience to ponder over these matters and start the discussion of what race in America really looks like. Even though some may say that racial issues are no longer relevant in modern society, there are still many people fighting every day for their rights as people of color, and only now beginning to feel comfortable speaking out about their ancestors’ struggles.

Michele Norris, born on September 7, 1961, is one of the most distinguished American journalists. She was a host of the National Public Radio for ten years, from 2002 to 2012, and was the first African American woman to do so. According to her website, “her voice informs, engages and enlightens listeners with thoughtful interviews and in-depth reporting. Michele uses an approachable interviewing style that is at once relaxed and rigorous” (Norris).

One of Norris’s most notable achievements was her book The Grace of Silence. This book, a family memoir, initially aimed to explore America’s hidden conversations about race. However, Norris rapidly shifted her writing to tell the story of her recently discovered parent’s hidden secrets. Following the success of her book, Norris has since hosted several events, where she discusses these stories, and ignites the audience to think about race in America.

Norris also founded The Race Card Project in 2010 to start the conversation about race. In only six words, people from a myriad of backgrounds were encouraged to describe their experience with race. The project has grown immensely and has received submissions from all over the world, from people ready and eager to further this discussion.

At the event that I attended, Norris began by speaking about the meaning of silence. She mentions how great the power of listening is. We are constantly worried about saying what we think and believe, that we forget to listen to someone else’s story, and the value that it may have. She, then, explains how she came to this realization.

Norris grew up in a loving family, and her parents had strived to give her a happy childhood. It was only around President Obama’s election that she heard for the first time the stories of the struggles that her family had gone through. At this time, many African Americans felt a sense of skepticism about the coming new era. However, many felt hope and were astonished to see a man of their color in the White House, knowing the battles that they and their ancestors had fought in the dominant white society.

The story that struck me the most was her grandmother’s. To Norris, her grandma was a polished and elegant woman. For this reason, she was surprised when she found out, through her uncle, that she had traveled the country representing the brand Aunt Jemima in the late 1940’s, to advertise their pancake mix. She traded her elegant headscarves for a bandana tied at the top of her head, and put on a hoop skirt, and went from house to house, making cooking demonstrations.

This stereotyped image of Aunt Jemima can be related to the film Ethnic Notions. This film shows images of how African Americans were portrayed in the 20th century, through cartoons with exaggerated facial characteristics, almost intended to make them look less human. Furthermore, it depicts the “mammie” character, who was always sweet and tended to the master’s needs, which stripped black women of any individualism. As discussed in chapter 9 of the book Freedom on My Mind, this was the reality of most black women in the south. They worked outside the home, for wages around $2 per week, and “most often they worked in white women’s homes—as cooks, maids, nannies and nurses” (White et al. 357). Many African American people were forced to perpetuate these stereotypes by participating in the TV shows and commercials. However, Norris explains that her grandmother was able to find a way to somewhat contradict this. Since she traveled along the Midwest, it was likely that the white people there had never seen a black person before her. So, she made sure that she always spoke with good diction to let people know that she was educated. She would also hum gospels while cooking, to let them know that she was a woman of God. The fact that Norris’s grandmother had to go through the trouble of making sure people knew she was educated and civilized, is appalling. She not only had to endure the humiliation of working a job that further stereotyped her race, she had to do so with a smile on her face, and with the understanding that there was a great likelihood that people would not treat her with her due respect.

Norris also told the story that, in February of 1946, her father had been shot. At the time, an African American could only register to vote if he had knowledge about and was able to explain the constitution. This was a form of disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow period as it intended to present a barrier to their right to vote. One day, her father was dressed in his military uniform, and was entering a building where a meeting was held by and for African Americans, when a white guard shot him in the leg. Even though he was able to recover, her father had never told her this story. It was not a matter that her family discussed. Her own mother, his wife, did not know this story. Norris says her father “gave them silence, because he wanted them to soar.” He did not want his children to build resentment and hate towards this nation. She says, “he loved the country that did not love him back, and passed that love on to his children.” In the article “What Does Black Patriotism Look Like?” by Paris Giles, the author mentions that “Love of country is […] complicated – especially this country whose love for its black inhabitants has historically looked much more like hate” (Giles). This 2018 article shows how in over 70 years, the anguish that African Americans feel towards their love for America has persisted. Even after serving the country, especially in military service, most African Americans still do not feel appreciated or loved in their own country, due to their own history in it.

To end, I believe that Norris’s personal six words from the Race Card Project accurately depict issues of race in America in the modern society. Naturally, at the events where Norris mentions the Race Card Project, many ask the question “what are Michele Norris’s six words?” Even after the breakthrough of Obama’s election, and all that African Americans have accomplished throughout the years, one can undeniably say that there is “still more work to be done.”

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