In the midst of Black History Month back in February, I was able to attend a talk given by former NPR host Michele Norris. She retold her story that she had written about in her book in 2011 titled The Grace of Silence, in which she notes the particular eye-opening moments she had when she learned of the racial injustices her parents experienced but kept secret from her and her siblings. Growing up, she claimed she was “bathed in silence” and shielded from the truth about her parents’ lives, but acknowledged that the silence was a form of protection. She knew she was not alone in this experience. She stressed the utmost importance of breaking this silence and the need for a broader conversation about race, and thus, the Race Card Project was born. At the end of the day, African American history should not go untold — there is a true value in understanding your place in the world and why everything functions the way it does. This information can be used to inform our future decisions and encourages us to take advantage of opportunities that people in history fought for.
Michele Norris’ father served in the military during World War II and when he returned home, he went to school to learn about the Constitution. At the time, African Americans faced impossible discriminatory examinations about the Constitution at the voting polls, which left the majority of African Americans unable to vote. Norris described her father as being “infatuated by democracy,” just as most African Americans were during the second world war. As mentioned in the book, “Freedom on my mind,” African Americans led the Double V Campaign which hoped for victory not only at war, but also at home. Their main goal was to fight for a democracy they never had in order to gain true freedom and rights (White 444). Norris’ father carried a Constitution in his pocket wherever he went and studied it intently so he could pass the exam and gain the right to vote. He was a true patriot and “loved the country that didn’t love him back.” Back in the mid-1900s, many African Americans similarly became patriots as a means to gaining rights, but also became black nationalists. This is the idea that black people are a nation within a nation. This unity proved to be powerful in the following years for trying to merge the nation into one with equal rights for all races.
One day Norris learned that her father had been shot in the leg by a police officer after WWII, which explained the limp he always had. This was undoubtedly shocking news to Norris and it was hard for her to fathom why this had been kept secret from her all her life. She also discovered that her grandmother worked as an “Aunt Jemima” for Quaker Oats and travelled all over the country teaching people how to make pancakes. Back then, women rarely traveled and women of color even more rarely traveled. Her grandmother’s goal was to challenge the racial ideologies about black women in America, but again, even this praiseworthy task her grandmother completed was kept secret. Norris believes her parents kept quiet because they did not want to weigh her down by infusing her with any kind of fear. Instead, they only infused her with the same love for America that her father possessed so that she would not doubt anything she was doing. But once the silence was broken, Norris explained that she finally had a greater understanding of her place in the world. When Barack Obama was elected as president, Norris noted that African Americans of the new millenium began to speak up about what they had experienced. The silence was broken. Obama’s presidency was a sign that America had moved forward to the next stage in racial equality. It seems that when people have representation, they move away from silence and start speaking up. We saw this with Martin Luther King Jr., who initiated marches and gave African American’s rhetoric they could use to stand up for themselves (White 510). We saw this with Malcolm X who had a fiery crowd of African Americans at his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech in 1964. And then we saw voices emerge once Obama was elected. According to Gregory Smithers in his journal article, “Barack Obama and Race in the United States: A History of the Future,” “an Obama presidency represents a radical departure from the nation’s dark and often brutal racial past, and the opening of a new chapter in America’s history” (Smithers 1). It is important to note that this did not symbolize the end of racism, but rather the start of a new and different conversation about race.
To continue to foster these voices and move away from silence, Norris created the Race Card Project in which people were asked to write six words pertaining to race on a card. At the talk, she read many of the cards that had been sent in over the years, but three particularly stuck out to me. Someone had written, “racism is a flesh colored band-aid.” Throughout history, white Americans have manipulated African Americans into thinking their lives are less valuable than whites’ lives and were often dehumanized — they were treated like animals during the Middle Passage and as slaves, and were separated from white Americans in nearly every way possible. In the twentieth century, segregation was prominent and consisted of racial zoning which kept blacks away from whites. Blacks faced severe economic injustice which exacerbated poverty and led to lower quality schools, hospitals, and essential services than what white Americans had. And here someone mentions the band-aid. Racism has gone as far as to equate skin-colored band-aids with white skin. Racial injustice is present everywhere, even in something as minuscule as a band-aid. Another card that provoked me said, “Lady I don’t want your purse.” Black Americans still face disproportionate amounts of police brutality. As a result, black men have had a stereotype develop that they are all dangerous, when in reality this is far from the truth. The last card that I won’t ever forget said, “Black babies cost less to adopt.” I think this one speaks for itself. It proves that racism is still alive today and the conversation of race is one that must continue.
Michele Norris mentioned that in some parts of the world, there is no word for ‘race.’ But here in America, race, and issues pertaining to it, are beyond prevalent. African Americans have endured a cruel history which should not be ignored. Luckily, Obama’s presidency broke some of the silence, but without a doubt, there is more to be broken. Norris also stressed the importance of truly listening to what people have to say. It goes a long way.
Byrad, Theresa. “Michele Norris Panel.” University of San Diego, 2020, https://www.sandiego.edu/news/detail.php?_focus=75586. Accessed 11 May 2020.
Smithers, Gregory. “Barack Obama and Race in the United States: A History of the Future.” Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1-16.
White, Deborah Gray, et al. Freedom on My Mind. Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.